What is Puerto Rico?

By Edoardo Ortiz, MPP’20, former economic consultant

Puerto Rico’s unique political status as a Latin American U.S. territory breeds endless confusion from all angles. On one hand, people from the United States see Puerto Rico as something less than a U.S. state – an appendage to the country. On the other, Latin American countries see Puerto Rico a something less than a country – a mirage of actual sovereignty. 

What’s the underlying truth to all of this? Why is Puerto Rico’s political status so confusing?

            The story begins in 1898 when, after the Spanish-American War, the U.S. gained control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. While it allowed Cuba to become a sovereign nation, it held on to the latter three colonies as “territories”.

            The word territory used to mean, essentially, a “pre-state”. In other words, a U.S. territory was a self-governing jurisdiction under U.S. control that was simply waiting for Congressional approval to be admitted as a state. However, the meaning of this word changed after 1898 when a new kind of territory was created – the “unincorporated” territory.

            This new kind of territory was, like all territories, a jurisdiction under U.S. control but with key exceptions, mainly:

  • It was no longer assumed to be a pre-state but more like a possession 
  • The U.S. constitution didn’t have to apply fully to that territory.

What did this mean for Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines? 

Firstly, the U.S. Congress decided their governmental structure and hence denied full democracy. The Governor and head officials of Puerto Rico were appointed by the President of the United States – often being offered as patronage positions. Puerto Ricans were not allowed to elect their full local government until 1952, Guam was not allowed to elect its full local government until 1972. 

Secondly, it meant these territories were in a political limbo. They were neither on a path to statehood or independence and the U.S. Congress could at any time change this, like they did when they granted the Philippines independence in 1946. 

Thirdly, it meant that under U.S. rule both federally and locally, these territories became more politically, militarily and economically dependent on U.S. interests, further strengthening the United States’ hold on them.

Around the late 1940s and early 1950s, Puerto Rican leadership hoped to strike a new path that wasn’t statehood or independence, but a form of free association under what they called a “Commonwealth”. This new type of association would ideally allow Puerto Ricans to draft a local constitution and elect their local government while maintaining favorable trade and citizenship relations with the U.S. under a bilateral compact between two equal nations.

While Puerto Ricans were allowed to draft a local constitution, the dreams of a bilateral compact were soon shown to be impossible as the U.S. was not willing to relinquish full sovereignty over Puerto Rico. So, while Puerto Ricans did gain some local control, they remain an unincorporated territory of the United States.

What does this mean? It means that Puerto Rico exists as a sort of paradox within the United States – legally, it has been described as “foreign in a domestic sense”, a contradiction that encapsulates how confusing the situation is.

In brief, Puerto Ricans:

  • Are U.S. citizens
  • Pay most (but not all) federal taxes
  • Don’t receive full parity on federal programs
  • Don’t vote for U.S. President, but elect a non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress.
  • They have international representation in cultural and sporting events, but not in any substantive trade or political bodies/alliances like the United Nations.

Where do Puerto Rican stand on all of this? 

            There are Puerto Ricans of all kinds of opinions. For some, Puerto Rico is a “best of both worlds” and could benefit by modifying the current status. Others think that the status quo is undemocratic and that Puerto Rico is, in a fundamental sense, still a colony. From these, some think U.S. statehood is the solution, others think some form of independence or sovereign free association is the solution. 

            Whatever the future holds for Puerto Rico, the archipelago is undeniably a Latin American bastion. Its deep cultural roots in Latin America resisted U.S. attempts to “Americanize” the island. Spanish is still, by far, the dominant language and Puerto Ricans, regardless of opinions on status, are very passionate about their identity and will retain that identity no matter what. Puerto Rico’s complexities and contradictions don’t make these facts any less real. 

Hopefully, with a better understanding of Puerto Rico, the discussions around it can change. No longer do we have to see the archipelago as less than anything, but simply a complicated place with contradictions that need to be solved. But the path to helping Puerto Rico find a way out of these contradictions is to first listen, lest it be forgotten or dismissed as neither sufficiently one thing or another.

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