Demythologizing Puerto Rico’s Status

Howard Hills, who served in the Reagan administration as lead counsel on territorial status policy for the National Security Council, writes in The Hill on its featured “Congress Blog” that the fiscal plight of Puerto Rico has historical causes not recognized in most recent media coverage of the current economic crisis.

He says we should, instead, “Blame It on the Commonwealth.” Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, just like the 32 territories that became states. Puerto Rico is a territory pure and simple, according to Hills, and has no special relationship or deal with the U.S. that make its status as a “commonwealth” any different from the territorial status recognized by federal courts, even if lip service is given to Puerto Rico’s “uniqueness” and “autonomy.”

To the contrary, the commonwealth system for local administration of civil affairs under a territorial constitution exists only by operation of federal statutory law that is constitutionally temporary and not binding on Congress.

But Hills, who has been a scholar on territorial policy in and out of government for many years, says that some U.S. and local officials gave people in Puerto Rico the false impression that it had a special “commonwealth” relationship which could evolve in the future into a permanent constitutional status.

Hills writes, “The Cold War made it inconvenient to enable Puerto Rico to attain either statehood or nationhood. So the artificial construct of the ‘commonwealth’ regime as a form of indefinite ‘autonomy’ was contrived. The effect was to exclude the last large and populous U.S. territory from competitive participation in the political economy sustained by the American system of constitutional federalism.”

This exclusion resulted in an unsettled status and the economic stagnation Puerto Rico is now seeing. As Hills points out,

History proves that since 1796 each economically underperforming territory that became a State broke through to sustained growth, eventual prosperity and the ability to pay its way in the Union.

What’s the connection between statehood and prosperity? It’s not, Hills says, federal money.

The economic potential of any community of people governed under federal sovereign powers can be realized only if the economic interests of the people concerned can be protected and promoted in the give and take of the constitutional process through which citizens of the states give consent to the form of government and laws under which we live. Under the U.S. Constitution, the equal right of all persons with national citizenship to consent to laws that govern us can be secured only through the exercise of state citizenship…That is because only citizens in states vote for members of Congress and the president.

Colonialism is the problem, Hills says, because it leaves the people of Puerto Rico without the power of participation in America’s democracy. And the current “commonwealth” regime is in fact colonialism.

Hills concludes, “It is not good for my nation to govern other citizens under a century old imperialist doctrine of colonial rule.”

Perhaps the most profound point Hills makes is that the only territories governed by the U.S. throughout our nation’s history that chose separate nationhood were territories inhabited by people denied U.S. citizenship. Congress chose not to extend U.S. citizenship to the Commonwealth of the Philippines and the Pacific island people governed by the U.S. under a 1947 U.N. trusteeship from which three sovereign nations were formed, and one island chain that became a “commonwealth” territory with U.S. citizenship.

While separate nationhood is an option for Puerto Rico, if it chose that future status it would be the first U.S. territory to give up U.S. citizenship and the possibility of incorporation into the Union of States under the Constitution.

Read the full article.

Hills is author of the forthcoming book Citizens Without a State with a foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

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