Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth possession of the United States doesn’t fit with the American narrative of democracy and self determination.
“Welcome to America!” Ben from San Francisco (who I had just met in a hostel) said to me on my first day in Puerto Rico, “I mean, not that I live here or anything”. As friendly and well intentioned Ben’s greeting was it was clear that, despite not sharing a language or culture with the local population, he felt sufficiently entitled enough to welcome me to a country that he had only just arrived in. Except, Puerto Rico isn’t a country, but a Spanish-speaking Caribbean island whose official status is as a Commonwealth territory of the United States. Despite being an American Studies graduate, I had not given much thought to Puerto Rico’s status until I visited the island, and having been I can’t help but find Puerto Rico’s disenfranchised status problematic and more than a little bit hypocritical.
Originally part of the Spanish Empire, control of Puerto Rico transferred to the United States in 1898 at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war (1). At the time, U.S Navy General Miles assured the Puerto Rican people that the US meant to ‘bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our Government’. However, in reality Puerto Rico’s situation at the outcome of the war – as an occupied territory – was a far cry from the idealised justifications that led the United States to war in the first place.
Puerto Rico remained an occupied territory for nearly 20 years until the Jones Act of 1917 extended many constitutional rights to Puerto Ricans. All Puerto Ricans were then declared citizens of the US, thereby making the island an organised (but unincorporated) territory.
Since 1952 Puerto Rico has been a Commonwealth of the US, making it a territory under the territorial clause in the US Constitution. This means that Puerto Rico has its own constitution and government but the President remains as the head of state. Unlike members of the British Commonwealth, the US government controls many Puerto Rican affairs, including trade, agriculture, natural resources and the military (full list here). Despite the US government having considerable influence, Puerto Ricans are unable to vote in American federal elections.
This status quo has been maintained by Puerto Rico in several status referendums, but this changed in 2012 when the results showed a majority leaning towards full statehood. This didn’t go unnoticed by policy makers, but the United States are nevertheless under no immediate obligation to act on the results. The ex Secretary of State of Puerto Rico, Kenneth McClintock, has argued that this means that ‘the US is governing Puerto Rico without the consent of the governed’.
Culturally speaking, Puerto Rico meets most of the objectives and subjective characteristics of the conventional views of the nation, among them a shared language, territory and history, but many Puerto Ricans are reluctant to seek outright independence and therefore lose their right to live and work in the US.
In the words of Antonio Amílcar Barreto, “Puerto Ricans are cultural nationalists [but] the island’s economic dependency on the United States […] outweighs other considerations when it comes to voting.”
This is not to say that Puerto Rico doesn’t have a long history of independence movements, images of Oscar Lopez Rivera – a nationalist who was convicted to 55 years in federal prison in 1988 – can be seen all over San Juan. This is one of several examples of the American government resisting Puerto Rican independence.
Puerto Rico is currently defaulting on around $70 billion worth of debt payment to the United States. The repayment of these debts is, according to the governor, not possible, yet as a Commonwealth territory Puerto Rico is unable to declare bankruptcy (2). With this in mind, it’s hard to see how the status quo can continue.
It seems obvious that the colonial relationship that persists between the two polities cannot last, so the question is what is the best viable option for Puerto Rico? To many (including the 61% of Puerto Ricans that voted for incorporation) the only answer is initiation as a full state of the Union. But I cannot help but speculate that in the current political climate, it seems unlikely that a Republican controlled Congress would admit a debt ridden and largely Democratic (not to mention non-white and Spanish speaking) voting base into the Union. Puerto Ricans are thus caught in limbo, under the control of a larger power which refuses to either fully incorporate or award them sovereignty. Whatever happens, it seems to me that in its current situation, Puerto Rico lacks proper autonomy or representation, making it vulnerable to exploitation and financial ruin.
(1) The Spanish had actually transferred sovereignty to Puerto Rico a few months before, meaning that it wasn’t legally theirs to concede at the time.
(2) U.S corporations repatriated 313 billion dollars between 2004 and 2013. In fact, a third of the total income that is generated in Puerto Rico leaves the country each year in the form of repatriated profits.