A critique of the Puerto Rican condition as an American Territory

Puerto Rico has a long list of troubles that have gone ignored by the mainland. In September 2017, a horrific hurricane struck the islands of Puerto Rico, killing a total of 64 Puerto Ricans and costing the island a total of 55 billion dollars in property damages, according to CNN. However, the initial death count ignores the amount of people who died due to a lack-luster response by emergency officials and a lack of everyday necessities caused by the hurricane. Some reports from the New York Times, CNN, and Times suggest that this death toll may be as high as 1,000 or more. As a result, the Puerto Rican government has requested the death toll be investigated by George Washington University. The University’s report will be released later next month. One can only hope the death rate is lower than current reports suggest.

However, the suffering has not ended there. Suicide has become an increasingly problematic theme that permeates the lives of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico. USA Today reported the amount of suicide hotline calls have more than doubled from 2,046 to 4,548 between August and January. Suicide attempts have also increased in that same time period, from 782 to 1,075. This horrific trend is nothing new, as Puerto Rico has had a massive problem with mental health ever since the recession, which still has not ended on the island as it is now 74 billion dollars in debt, NBC reports. USA Today estimated that the Mental Health Center at Ponce Health Sciences University received 4,000 to 4,500 patients a month since the hurricane began. This mass mental health problem has gotten worse as suicides increased 29 percent from 2016, with 253 cases according to a report by Newsweek and the Commission for the Prevention of Suicide.

The sad reality is that many Puerto Ricans either don’t believe in mental health or can’t get access to the treatment they need when they do, as reported by Alicia Schwartz, a volunteer nurse in Puerto Rico. Dr. Kenira Thompson, who is in charge at Ponce Health Services, has also noted the increase in patients seeking mental health assistance.  Many in lower populated areas outside the main cities have little hope of access to mental health care as well, since the island lacks infrastructure, making travel especially difficult. This is only further exacerbated by the fact that 11 percent of Puerto Rico do not have access to power as reported by NPR, meaning 150,000 households and businesses have nothing powering their daily needs.

None of these problems have been effectively addressed because they have no say in Congress, as they can only send one non-voting member to Congress and can’t vote for president. Not only that, but they have very little visibility in the eyes of their fellow Americans. The New York Times reported that only 54 percent of Americans know that those born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. This means that the homeland which shares citizenship status with Puerto Rico has little to no idea or concern regarding Puerto Rican interests and its people, not realizing that those same interests are American interests.

If the very status of Puerto Rico is not addressed soon, then the problems plaguing Puerto Rico’s people will only continue to get worse. In a referendum in 2017, 97 percent voted in favor of statehood according to the New York Times. However, another problem came with this referendum: low voter turnout. Only 23 percent of the populace showed up to vote, likely due to indecision and other issues. This issue affects 3.4 million people whose lives are not being protected by our government and yet, they can’t even do anything about it because they are considered less since they’re not part of a state. To put this in perspective, Wyoming has only about 579,000 people according to the U.S. Census and can vote for Congress and president. Puerto Rico, with a population nearly six times its size, can’t. Unless Puerto Rico’s status is altered, nothing will change. They must be given their rights as Americans to defend their interests, lest they be considered second-class citizens.

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