A commenter at our Facebook page made this comment: “So it sounds like PR is divided on becoming a state? I take it that 3 failed votes equals the majority not wanting to become a state? Just trying to understand. I find this a very interesting subject that fails to be discussed among the masses.”
We agree that this topic deserves a lot more discussion.
And we know that it’s confusing. We believe, as supporters of statehood, that our political rivals intentionally make it confusing. We’re also aware that there are people who hold sincere different points of view. We respect that. But we want to make sure that the facts are clear.
Is Puerto Rico divided on becoming a state?
There are three possible status options for Puerto Rico under the U.S. Constitution. Since Puerto Rico belongs to the United States, the U.S. Constitution is relevant here. Any other possibility is a fantasy.
Statehood is a real possibility. 32 other territories have become states. There is no legal obstacle to statehood for Puerto Rico. Congress just needs to vote to admit Puerto Rico as a state. There’s not much mystery about how statehood would work out for Puerto Rico, either. All states are equal, under the Constitution, and we can see that every state became more prosperous and had more law and order as a state than as a territory.
Independence is a legal possibility, but Puerto Ricans don’t want independence. No more than 5% have ever voted for it. No independence candidate has ever been chosen as Governor of Puerto Rico. Polls repeatedly show that Puerto Ricans want to retain their U.S. citizenship. You can find more independence supporters living in the states than in Puerto Rico. It is, as Rep. Jose Serrano said, easy to be in favor of independence when you live in a state. But the reality is, Congress would have to force independence on Puerto Rico against the will of the residents.
Puerto Rican can remain a territory of the United States forever. Those who support this say that they have another idea: enhanced commonwealth. Again, Rep. Serrano said it just right — nobody wants the current territory status. Those who argue for “commonwealth” are arguing for a letter to Santa. All three branches of the federal government have rejected this idea.
One, two, or three?
Polls in Puerto Rico and in the states have shown that statehood is the most popular option, not only among Puerto Ricans, but among Americans in general. Both major political platforms include statehood for Puerto Rico in their party platforms. There are opponents of this idea, just as there are Texans who claim that they want to secede from the United States, but the great majority prefer statehood.
Three failed votes?
So far, there have been five plebiscites. As the chart above shows, the percentage of voters choosing statehood has increased each time (just slightly between 1993 and 1998).
In 1967, there were many people who believed that Puerto Rico could have a special relationship with the United States that could not be changed without the agreement of both sides. In the half century since that vote, the federal government has said over and over that the U.S. Constitution will not allow this.
- Attorney General Thornburg said, “We also have concerns with some of the provisions that define the commonwealth option . For example, section 402(a) would declare that Puerto Rico ‘enjoys sovereignty, like a state, to the extent provided by the Tenth Amendment,’ and that ‘[t]his relationship is permanent unless revoked by mutual consent .’ These declarations are totally inconsistent with the Constitution. We consider it imperative that it be made clear beyond peradventure that the Commonwealth is and must remain under the sovereignty of the United States. This is necessary in order to avoid the continuation of the uncertainties and controversies that have plagued the existing commonwealth relationship.”
- Four U.S. House Chairmen said, “Although there is a history of confusion and ambiguity on the part of some in the U.S. and Puerto Rico regarding the legal and political nature of the current ‘commonwealth’ local government structure and territorial status, it is incontrovertible that Puerto Rico’s present status is that of an unincorporated territory subject in all respects to the authority of the United States Congress under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution. As such, the current status does not provide guaranteed permanent union or guaranteed citizenship to the inhabitants of the territory of Puerto Rico, nor does the current status provide the basis for recognition of a separate Puerto Rican sovereignty or a binding government-to-government status pact.”
- A 1997 House report said, ““Full self-government for Puerto Rico is attainable only through establishment of a political status which is based on either separate Puerto Rican sovereignty and nationality or full and equal United States nationality and citizenship through membership in the Union and under which Puerto Rico is no longer an unincorporated territory subject to the plenary authority of Congress arising from the Territorial Clause” In other words, statehood or independence.”
- The Supreme Court said in Puerto Rico vs. Sanchez Valle, “The Executive Branch has recognized that Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory subject to Congress’s authority. A 1994 Office of Legal Counsel opinion explained that Congress may not create a sovereign territory consistent with the Constitution, and since then, the Department of Justice has repeatedly stated the same view to Congress in connection with proposed legislation about Puerto Rico. Presidential task force reports in 2005, 2007, and 2011 have likewise confirmed that Puerto Rico is not a sovereign and that it could become one only if it were to attain statehood or become an independent nation.”
These statements are among the hundreds of unambiguous statements by the United States government, which owns Puerto Rico. There is no point to continue talking about a special relationship in which Puerto Rico will not be a mere territory. The United States has said very clearly that this will not happen.
The votes in which the “commonwealth”option won (as in 1996, when the territorial option got 48% and statehood got 46%) were in fact failed votes. Puerto Rico chose to remain a territory… but many voters imagined they could have a special relationship which would be negotiated between Puerto Rico and Congress. Since that is impossible, those votes were in fact failures. Puerto Rico continued to be an unincorporated territory of the United States with little voice in American democracy. That’s probably not what those voters wanted.
The 2012 and 2017 votes, in which the majority of Puerto Rico’s voters chose statehood, could be called failures because Congress did not take the action that Puerto Rico chose.
But that is a failure of Congress. Congress has a responsibility to act when U.S. citizens say clearly that they do not consent to being governed in the way they are being governed. That is part of our Declaration of Independence. Puerto Rico doesn’t want independence. But Puerto Rico does want sovereignty and the dignity of statehood. Tell your congressperson.