The Making of the Commonwealth Myth: Part II

The 1922 ruling that separated U.S. citizenship from the Constitution meant that U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico owed allegiance to the U.S. and bore the heaviest duties of citizenship, including obedience to federal law and military service, but were denied the most important rights. Even though the court made a hollow promise that “fundamental rights” would apply to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, unincorporated status has meant that equal protection of law and full due process do not apply by force of the Constitution.

For the first time in history Congress had virtually unrestrained power to rule over U.S. citizens without any commitment that the territory would end up with the voting rights that would come with eventual statehood. Unlike other territories, Puerto Rico had no guarantee that it would ever have constitutional tools to protect itself from unfair policies. Congress treated this as a green light to apply policies unpredictably, giving special rights in some cases and denying equal protection of law in other cases.

Faced with this worst case scenario for the rights and dignity of their people, some local leaders thought that special privileges, like exemption from some federal taxes, made denial of equal rights less unfair. Strategies and tactics aimed at creating “autonomy” from Washington were adopted to off-set the injustice of inequality, but these policy gimmicks were more symbolic than real, were subject to repeal by Congress at any time, and could never make up for the rights denied to the people of Puerto Rico.

Because gaining citizenship without equal citizenship rights was so intolerably unfair, the political and social stress caused Puerto Rico to divide into two political factions. The statehood faction believed there was no substitute for full equality with all other U.S. citizens through statehood. The autonomy faction believed Puerto Rico would be even better off than if it had statehood — if it could retain U.S. citizenship but also become a virtual separate nation of its own.

To allow and promote development of Puerto Rico’s political culture, Congress approved a local constitution in 1952, calling the territory a “commonwealth.” Since then the statehood faction has treated the constitution and “commonwealth” as a stepping-stone to incorporation and statehood. The separate autonomy faction has treated the constitution and “commonwealth” as a framework for autonomy and virtual nationhood with U.S. citizenship, even though that status does not exist under the U.S. Constitution.

This post was originally written in English and may be being auto-translated by Google.

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