32 territories became states of the U.S. in the first two centuries of our history. For those territories that were organized under the Northwest Ordinance, statehood was the future planned for them by the federal government from the beginning. The unincorporated territory doctrine means that Congress has not been required to adopt any real plan for the future status of Puerto Rico.
That means a Tennessee Plan strategy for Puerto Rico might be different from the Tennessee Plan for territories organized under the Northwest Ordinance. To begin with, a Tennessee Plan for Puerto Rico would mean that Puerto Rico would no longer be an unincorporated territory waiting patiently for Congress to decide it fate. A Tennessee Plan for Puerto Rico might even require a proclamation that U.S. citizens in the territory no longer consent to unincorporated territory status so it is no longer legitimate on a particular date, just as Tennessee declared that their incorporated territory status ended on a date they chose.
For other Tennessee Plan territories, statehood was already established as the future political status of the territory, by Congress. Puerto Rico would in essence be declaring a future political status policy when Congress has not done so. This would also mean that Puerto Rico was not only setting aside unincorporated territory status, but bypassing incorporation and going straight from unincorporated territory status to statehood. No other unincorporated territory has done this, so Puerto Rico would be making history.
We might say that every territory made history when it became a state. If they used the Tennessee Plan, they just became states sooner than Congress chose. In the case of Puerto Rico, Congress has done nothing to make clear the future political status of the Island. The Tennessee Plan would force Congress not just to say that the time is right for statehood, but also that statehood is right for Puerto Rico. While each territory has a unique history, when all is said and done the transcendental power and transformational effect of democracy in action is what the Tennessee Plan has always been all about.
Obviously that requires a democratic mandate for statehood for Puerto Rico. However, given the large Puerto Rican population in the other states, the expanding political power of Hispanic voters, and the perversity of discrimination against 4 million U.S. citizens within the American political culture, Puerto Rico may be able to adapt the Tennessee plan to its unique position and make it work.
Or, it could fail in the short term but eventually lead to success, like it did for New Mexico.
Arguably, unincorporated territory status for Puerto Rico is a colonial condition, where incorporated territory status was part of an anti-colonial tradition for earlier American territories to become states. Puerto Rico, since Congress has not said it will certainly become a state in the future, can’t look with confidence toward a future of equal rights. Puerto Rico’s continued economic problems show the ongoing effects of this political limbo, and the numbers of Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland show the loss of hope that results.
For that very reason, the Tennessee Plan may be the best path for Puerto Rico. However, that path will lead to statehood only if Puerto Rico’s Tennessee Plan is well planned and carried out.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that unincorporated territory status in Puerto Rico has evolved into a status “like a state”. Yet 4 million residents of the territory cannot vote for their president. The truth is Puerto Rico is a de facto state in most respects, but U.S. citizenship rights there are restricted.
That is what caused the U.S. citizens of Tennessee to step up and proclaim equality and full citizenship rights. If the people of Puerto Rico want equal rights and duties of national citizenship in the United States, they should do the same.
This post was originally written in English and may be being auto-translated by Google.