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  1. Wealth
June 4, 2013

Puerto Rico Wants to Become an American State Why?

By Spear's

A Caribbean idyll, Puerto Rico wants to become the 51st star on the American flag. But what are the powerful interests driving it? Max Johnson investigates

Star In Their Eyes

A Caribbean idyll, Puerto Rico wants to become the 51st star on the American flag. But what are the powerful interests driving it? Max Johnson investigates

I like the shores of America! 

Comfort is yours in America! 

Knobs on the doors in America! 

Wall-to-wall floors in America! 

IN 1956 STEPHEN Sondheim wrote the lyrics to ‘America’, sung by Anita and Rosalia, Puerto Rican immigrants to Manhattan, for West Side Story. The lines above are a chorus of high praise for America — a land of promise and opportunity where Puerto Ricans wanted to move in search of fame and fortune or even the sophistications of a better life (knobs on doors, say). Some 57 years later, Puerto Rico is on the verge of becoming an American state.

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The US has actually been involved in Puerto Rico for more than a century — since 1898, in fact, when the Spanish lost the US-Spanish War and had to hand over Puerto Rico, which sits between the Dominican Republic and the British Virgin Islands.

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Since 1917 Puerto Ricans have been US citizens with US passports but do not return senators to the US Congress and are not eligible to vote in presidential elections. They are also, on the plus side, exempt from federal taxes.

But on 6 November 2012, a referendum was held in Puerto Rico, the result of which was almost two-thirds of Puerto Ricans voting in favour of becoming a full US state; Barack Obama said that he would respect the ‘democratic process’.

While there are still obstacles to overcome, in my opinion Puerto Rico will be the 51st state before the end of Obama’s second presidential term.

‘Are you Americans?’ I asked Suki, my bartender. 

‘Well, we are Americans and Puerto Ricans at the same time!’ she said. Her colleague joined in to say that as long as life was getting better, then they wouldn’t mind being part of the US. The Puerto Rican government takes the same view: that statehood will bring federal handouts.

Not all the fervour is on the Puerto Rican side: powerful American military, business and political interests are taking Puerto Rico to statehood.

Inside the Ritz-Carlton San Juan

The US’s Only Rainforest

Travel magazines bill it as a Caribbean destination with a Latin twist — it does have the swing and groove of a salsa dance and slowly the country is becoming a rival destination to Antigua, St Barts and other long-held favourites — but this is no accident. There is big business behind it: American business. And it is to their profit for Puerto Rico to become a state.

It was appropriate that my trip started on the island of Vieques, off the eastern coast of the main island, at the beautiful W hotel, an outcrop of one of those American businesses. The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is still a restricted area, maintained by the US Navy.

The beach at the Ritz Carlton

The Americans conducted military operations there from 1941 until 2003, when George W Bush agreed to give up control; statehood could return it into American power (if not for military use). On an island which began as testing ground for the US military, Starwood has seized the opportunity to build the island’s only luxury hotel, with two private beaches, two pools and a top-of-the-range spa.

It is worth noting, as an aside, that on Puerto Rico itself, the US also has control of the luscious El Yunque rainforest, making it the US’s only rainforest. The Camuy caves, equally impressive, receive no such US support and only a few hundred dollars a month from the government in San Juan. It seems the US can pick and choose what it wants to protect.

What was unique about Vieques, in comparison to, say, the many beach resorts in Asia I have experienced, was the seclusion. With only two main roads and a population of 9,000, there is a strong sense of community. People and wild horses share gardens and roads together. 

The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge encompasses beaches, coastal lagoons, mangrove wetlands and forested uplands, but its highlight is a bioluminescent bay. I joined a group of tourists just after sunset and, together with a partner, got into a transparent-bottomed kayak and slipped off into the middle of the bay. The dinoflagellates, simple marine organisms, lit up the water like submerged fireflies. The night sky was clear and I saw Orion’s belt, Sirius and then, as if on cue, a shooting star. 

Classic old-world Caribbean charm at the St Regis Bahia Beach

Luxury Beach Hotels

It’s not only Starwood trying to cash in. After my three days of bliss on Vieques, I hopped over to the main island to stay at the St Regis Bahia, with its beautiful series of interlinking pools and two 18-hole golf courses.

Further down the coast there is the newly opened Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, across a staggering 1,400 acres. Every guestroom sits directly on one of its three private beaches. As well as its four golf courses, the hotel has lured Jose Andres, 2011 winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award. To complete the US hotel owners, the Sheraton Old San Juan captures all the arrivals at the port, being the only luxury hotel in Old San Juan itself.

The W Vieques offers bright hyper-modernity

Other businesses such as those in retail and fine dining are also positioning themselves for a high-end travel market. There is a hip Miami-vibe over at Condado, where designer brands and swanky restaurants line up on the seafront. The beeps of San Juan taxis fade away, replaced by the content purrings of powerful engines. 1919 at the Vanderbilt must be weeks away from gaining a Michelin star.

Tourism means both the US government and the American hotel chains want Puerto Rico to become a state. The US would be able to tax the tourist industry, which is surely going to expand, and businesses are keen to attract ‘domestic’ tourism.

People joke that many Americans don’t have a passport, and if Puerto Rico becomes a state they won’t need one to visit one of the most exotic islands in the Caribbean (only three hours’ flight from New York, too). The increased tourism revenue must have the hotel chains drooling.

The W Vieques

Courting the Vote

Another big reason for statehood is Democrat votes. Puerto Rico’s 3.6 million population is Hispanic and in every US presidential election Hispanics have voted Democrat (71 per cent for Obama in 2012 across the country). This is not lost on Obama and underlies why he is happy to let ‘the democratic process’ run its course. 

Statehood is going to face challenges, though. The small town hall is hardly equipped to cope with federal bureaucracy and the people think of the US as a rich old uncle giving handouts. The world is still in a recession, so those handouts may not be so ready or plentiful, but federal and household taxes will certainly be imposed. Perhaps after the event there might be a tinge of regret that a more rigorous analysis wasn’t done before joining.

Hopefully, Puerto Rico’s uniquely Latin and Caribbean culture won’t be lost. The Old Town is criss-crossed with cobbled lanes and alleys, some leading to churches and others to small townhouses. People fill the town squares and chat together or feed the pigeons. After walking only two or three streets away from the main harbour, you can lose yourself in a wash of Latin music and settle down for the best lunch in town at El Jibarito. 

In the last lines of ‘America’, Rosalia sings, ‘Everyone there will give big cheer!’ and Anita ripostes, ‘Everyone there will have moved here!’ Soon here and there will be one and the same.  

WEXAS Travel has seven-night packages at the St Regis Bahia Beach Resort from £1,950pp and the the W Retreat & Spa on Vieques Island from £1,979pp. Both packages include flights, private transfers and use of a private lounge at Gatwick.

For more information, visit

Read more from Max Johnson



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