Self-Governance for Puerto Rico

Governor Garcia Padilla of Puerto Rico recently sent a letter to the United Nations, complaining that Puerto Rico should be put back on the U.N.’s list of non-self-governing territories. This was in response to U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli’s friend of the court brief in the Sanchez Valle case, which explains that Puerto Rico remains a territory under the powers of the U.S. Congress, even though the Island has a constitution and elects a governor.

“Congress has evinced no intention to revoke the local autonomy it has vested in the government of Puerto Rico. But as a constitutional matter, Puerto Rico remains a territory subject to Congress’s authority under the Territory Clause,” Verrilli wrote. This is exactly what the U.S. government has said in each report of the Task Force on Puerto Rico, what the various hearings on Puerto Rico’s status have concluded, and what legal scholars have been saying for decades. The brief references numerous documents which make it clear that this is the position of Puerto Rico.

Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi described the Verrilli document as the “most complete document ever published by the U.S. government about the theme of Puerto Rico’s political status.”

However, the governor continues to hold that Puerto Rico is not a “mere territory.” The governor is mistaken. He has not been able to come up with a definition of the “enhanced commonwealth” he has in mind, nor has the government of Puerto Rico managed to define the third option (besides independence and statehood) that they want to see on the upcoming referendum.

His description of the situation in his letter to the U.N. describes a situation that is quite different:

“In a legal brief filed before the United States Supreme Court on December 23, 2015, the United States Government abruptly reversed course, and took the position that the Constitution and laws of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico do not emanate from the people of Puerto Rico after all…  Under this view, there can be no such thing as meaningful self-government by the people of Puerto Rico under the U.S. Constitution.”

There is no question that the Verrelli description of the territorial status of Puerto Rico is “an abruptly reversed course”: it lays out decades of evidence showing that Puerto Rico has been a territory since it was ceded to the U.S. by Spain, and that the 1952 constitution, while important, did not change the status of Puerto Rico.

“We checked the constitution,” the Constitution Center says on the subject, and “Puerto Rico has belonged to the United States since the American government won it as a prize of victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898. It has been a U.S. territory ever since, overseen and sometimes managed directly by Congress under the Territory Clause of Article IV of the Constitution.”

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