Puerto Rico is neither a state nor a country, but a territory of the United States. Some people might say that it is in fact a colony of the United States.
What is a colony?
A colony is an area that is controlled by a country, but which is not in that country. It is usually understood to be distant from the country that controls it, and people from the controlling country usually settle in the colony. A number of different European countries, for example, had colonies in what is now the United States. Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain before the United States gained control over it.
Joaquín A. Márquez is one of those who believe that Puerto Rico is essentially a colony of the United States. In his statement submitted to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee of Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Oversight Hearing, he explained the effects of the colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S.
“After World War II and the founding of the United Nations, a great universal movement to end colonialism was begun by the international community,” he explained. The U.N. developed a list of “non-self-governing” areas — in other words, colonies. The U.N. established a special committee which calls out the owners of these modern colonies. The United States was embarrassed to see Puerto Rico included on that list.
It’s hard to be a champion of independence and democracy while also owning a colony.
Did that change in 1952?
“In 1952, partially in response to pressure from this movement,” Márquez continued, “the Truman Administration allowed the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to be established. While it provided a measure of local self-government, the island remained as an unincorporated territory subject to the full plenary powers of Congress under Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution. By establishing a locally self-governing territory, the United States was able to remove Puerto Rico from the United Nation’s list of colonies and stop further criticism by the world community.”
This was especially important at that point in history. The “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union was at its height at that time. The U.S. wanted the world to see Puerto Rico as a showcase for American policies.
“The United States government wanted to draw a contrast between its successful stewardship of Puerto Rico and the Soviet Union’s floundering stewardship of Fidel Castro’s Cuba,” said Márquez. “While Puerto Rico enjoyed great economic progress and a vibrant democracy, Cuba languished under a hard dictatorship and a failed economic system.”
Has the situation changed in the 21st century?
The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization continues to call on the United States to provide a permanent status for Puerto Rico, and the U.S. continues to ignore those calls. Those who speak each year for the decolonization of Puerto Rico tend to be separatists from Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela arguing for independence for Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico does not want independence. In recent years, some have also argued before the United Nations for decolonization through statehood, which is supported by the majority of Puerto Rico voters. The central committee of the United Nations does not classify Puerto Rico as a colony.
But the U.S. has also changed the policies that let Puerto Rico look, temporarily, like a success story for the U.S. “These special privileges simply masked the colony’s intrinsic flaw – the insidious poison of colonialism,” said Márquez. “The economic and political model on which it is based simply is not sustainable in the long-run.”
As a colony, in Márquez’s view, Puerto Rico can’t fix U.S. policies that are not in its favor, so the Island continues in the strange position of an unincorporated territory, with none of the power of a State or a country.
32 current states were territories before they became states, so being a territory clearly can be part of the pathway to statehood… but Puerto Rico has been a territory for long enough.