Was Puerto Rico Independent?

Puerto Rico has voted for statehood twice, and the options now are fairly simple: Congress will move forward on statehood, or they will ignore the will of the people and keep Puerto Rico in a colonial position. The federal government has made it abundantly clear that there is no version of “enhanced commonwealth” or “evolved commonwealth” or “perfected commonwealth” that will be acceptable to the United States. Independence has been rejected by the people of the territory in every plebiscite. Statehood or continued second class citizenship are the options.

But there are some stubborn dreams about Puerto Rico’s status. One is the “enhanced commonwealth” fantasy, which continues in the form of arguments within the “commonwealth” party. For 65 years, the United States has made it clear that there will never be a non-territorial “commonwealth” status; Puerto Rico cannot force the U.S. to accept such a status.

Then there is the idea that Puerto Rico had gained independence from Spain before becoming a territory of the United States. In March of 1897, in the town of Yauco, there was an uprising. It is generally known as the “Intentona de Yauco,” or “Attempted Coup of Yauco.” It was put together by the leaders of the 1868 uprising known as El Grito de Lares, many of whom were in exile in new York City, and the remnants of the independence movement in the town of Yauco.

Following the Lares uprising, Spain had given citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico and allowed political parties to be organized on the Island. In 1871, following a series of skirmishes between independence supporters in Puerto Rico and Spanish authorities, Spain declared martial law in Puerto Rico. There were people working for Puerto Rico’s independence from Spain in Puerto Rico and in New York, but there were no further uprisings until the unsuccessful Intentona de Yauco. This was the final uprising against Spain, but the independence movement continued.

On November 25, 1897, Spain granted a Charter of Autonomy to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico still belonged to Spain, but there was local autonomy under the control of a governor appointed by Spain’s government. The new, relatively autonomous government was put in place in February of 1898.  Elections were held in March and local officials took office in July of 1898.

But war had broken out between Spain and the United States in April. Puerto Rico became involved in this war as a possession of Spain. On December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris gave the United States the territory of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico still belonged to Spain in July of 1898; that’s why Spain was able to give Puerto Rico to the United States. In 2017, this idea seems ridiculous. But Congress still has the legal power to give Puerto Rico away, just as Spain had that power. Most of the people of Puerto Rico agree that this is wrong. Most of the people of the United States who know this fact also think it’s wrong.

This is one reason that Puerto Rico should be a state. The federal government could not give Kansas to North Korea as part of a post-war treaty, but it could do so with Puerto Rico, which is a territory. How can we accept this state of affairs in 2017? Puerto Rico deserves the sovereignty and autonomy of statehood.

Puerto Rico has not been independent since Spain took power in the 15th century. Puerto Rico’s people do not want independence today — there has never been even as much as 6% voter support for independence in any plebiscite in Puerto Rico. Statehood will give Puerto Rico the power and sovereignty we need and deserve.

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