Revelers arrived in cars sporting the American flag and wore clothes in red, white and blue as they celebrated the anniversary of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood political party with deafening salsa music and speeches. Like many others worried about the U.S. territory’s future, those rallying Thursday night in the coastal town of Manati believe statehood can help pull it out of a nearly a decade of economic stagnation. “Puerto Rico has to become a state,” insisted 63-year-old celebrant Norma Candelario. With unemployment at 12 percent, and the public debt reaching $72 billion, advocates for making the Caribbean island the 51st state say the economic woes are strengthening their arguments. As a state, Puerto Rico’s municipalities and public utilities would no longer be prohibited from restructuring their debts through bankruptcy. It would also receive more of certain kinds of federal funding that other states get.
“The crisis has made us more visible worldwide,” said Carlos Pesquera, a former Puerto Rico transportation secretary who attended the rally. “I would have preferred that the crisis not happen, but we’re going to take this as an opportunity to define our status, to see it as a solution.”
Puerto Ricans have been divided over their relationship to the U.S. mainland for decades. Since 1967, most voters in three referendums have favored remaining a semi-autonomous territory, which advocates say preserves the island’s cultural identity and provides more local control.