It is legally possible for Puerto Rico to continue as a territory indefinitely. The Insular Cases, a series of decisions by the Supreme Court in the early 20th century, make this possible.

It is also possible for Puerto Rico to become an independent nation. Puerto Rico doesn’t want independence — the option has never gotten more than 5% in any status vote — and Congress is not likely to force Puerto Rico to become independent. But it is a legal option.

It is more likely that Puerto Rico, like 32 territories before it, will become a state. No territory which has requested statehood has ever yet been denied. Requests have been turned down, bills have failed, but statehood has always come along sooner or later.

Another option

In discussions of Puerto Rico’s status, however, there is also what Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico called the free beer and barbecue option.”

In a debate on Puerto Rico statehood in a committee hearing, some legislators suggested that Puerto Rico wasn’t willing to become a state and take on the full responsibilities and privileges of statehood. They said it looked like Puerto Rico wanted a free lunch. This was shortly after a status referendum in Puerto Rico in which voters chose “None of the above” rather than any viable status option. 

Puerto Rico leaders complained that Congress had failed to define the options. Many of these leaders were still imagining an “enhanced commonwealth” option, which the federal government has repeatedly rejected.  While the definition of the enhanced commonwealth option has not yet been agreed on by its proponents, it typically includes financial support from the United States without acceptance of federal laws by Puerto Rico. U.S. citizenship would be permanent and irrevocable and Puerto Rico would be able to make financial deals with other countries. Puerto Rico would be “neither colonial nor territorial,” and neither the U.S. not Puerto Rico could change the deal without the agreement of the other party. The federal government has repeatedly stated that it will not — and cannot, under the U.S. constitution — accept this kind of arrangement.

This is what Senator Bingaman was referring to when he responded to the “free lunch” claims with his remark about free beer and barbecue.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois responded with outrage, saying, “The people of Puerto Rico and all people of Puerto Rican descent deserve an apology for this insulting, demeaning and exceedingly condescending interpretation of a legitimate expression of personal preference in a free election.”

“Free beer and barbecue” might not have been the best way to express this, but the senator was actually saying that everyone would like to have lots of right and no responsibilities… and that such a deal would be impossible. States might want that, too, but they can’t have it, and neither can Puerto Rico. In the real world, rights and responsibilities go together.

Full rights and responsibilities

Puerto Rico has formally requested statehood, demanding the full rights and responsibilities of a state. Please let your representatives know that it is time to correct the error that keeps Puerto Rico in the position of an unincorporated territory. It’s time for statehood.



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