Puerto Rico: Destined for Statehood

San Juan is the oldest city in the nation. Puerto Rico’s proud heritage enriches the American experience.

The Taino people were the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico. They fished and grew pineapples, cassava, and sweet potatoes. They called their island Boriken.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain, and the islands were a colony of Spain for more than 400 years. First gold mines and then sugar plantations were supported by slave labor, and Puerto Rico became an important part of Spain’s New World possessions.

Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam to the United States and gave up Cuba in the Treaty of Paris in 1898,  ending the Spanish-American War.

The United States wanted to keep Puerto Rico, and tried to hold on to the Philippines, where the people who had fought the Spanish for independence continued the struggle.

After agreeing to independence for the Philippines in 1916, the U.S. granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917. Almost immediately, Puerto Ricans began to serve in the United States Army for World War I. From 1900 through 1952, the United States allowed Puerto Rico to exercise increasing measures of self-government in local affairs. From 1950 to 1952, the United States and Puerto Rico agreed on a constitution for the territory.  The name selected by the territorial government was the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico, but the territory decided that “Commonwealth” should be used instead of “Free Associated State” in English. “Commonwealth” is also in the names of several states, including Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

It was clearly stated that Congress continued to have plenary power over Puerto Rico, as is still the case today.

In 1967, 1993, 1998, and 2012, Puerto Rico held plebiscites in an effort to settle the status of the islands.

Under the U.S. Constitution, only statehood and nationhood (with or without an association with the U.S. that either nation could end) are possible options.

The 2012 plebiscite asked two questions, and received the answers below:

  • Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?
    • Yes: 46%
    • No: 54%
  • Irrespective of your answer to the first question, indicate which of the following non-territorial options you prefer.
    • Statehood: 61%
    • Independence: 5%
    • Sovereign Associated Free State: 33%

President Obama’s spokesperson declared that the votes as reported by Puerto Rico’s tripartisan  Election Commission were clear.

The governor and the legislative majority very narrowly elected at the same time refused to accept the self-determination decisions of Puerto Ricans because the plebiscite did not include their “Commonwealth” proposal combining aspects of statehood, territory status, and nationhood.

To resolve the dispute, President Obama proposed Federal support for a plebiscite under Federal auspices. The law requires that the options be able to resolve the status question, and the U.S. Justice Department must confirm that the options presented are possible under the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States. The Governor of Puerto Rico has committed to hold the referendum by 2017.

132 members of the U.S. House and three members of the Senate have joined Puerto Rico’s representative in proposing a clear “yes” or “no” vote on statehood. The governor recently agreed that the plebiscite should be held, but said it should provide different statuses as options. He also called for a new “Commonwealth” proposal to be made.

Statehood and nationhood are the possible options for the plebiscite. Since a territory can still become a State or a nation, a vote for continued territory status cannot resolve the status question.

A vote for statehood would clear the way for action in Congress and move Puerto Rico toward statehood.

A vote against statehood would allow Puerto Rico to plan for nationhood, as the Philippines did .

Either way, the divisive and harmful uncertainty over Puerto Rico’s status will be ended.

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