One of Puerto Rico’s official names is “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” One of the main political parties is known as the “commonwealth” party. So what is a commonwealth?
A confusing term
The first confusing thing about calling Puerto Rico a commonwealth is that “the Commonwealth” is an international organization made up of a group of 54 nations, most of which used to belong to Great Britain when she was a major colonial power. This is a real organization, sometimes called the Commonwealth of Nations. The map showing these countries is at the top of this post. The King of England is the head of the group. The existence of the Commonwealth has made some people believe that the United States and Puerto Rico are united in an arrangement like the one that unites England with its former colonies in the Commonwealth.
The second confusing thing is that Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and Massachusetts all use the term “commonwealth” in their names just as Puerto Rico does. All of these four are states, but their names include the word “commonwealth.” There is no difference between the way that Kentucky is a state and the way that Oklahoma is a state. All 50 states are, according to the U.S. constitution, “on an equal footing.” There is no legal meaning to “commonwealth” at all in the United States.
So why say “commonwealth”?
The word “commonwealth” was an ordinary word used to describe an organized group of people. It was used much as we now use “republic” or “nation.” When the original British colonies became the United States, some of the new states wanted to make it very clear that they were not kingdoms. They used names like “the Commonwealth of Virginia” to show that they were all together for the common good.
We no longer use the term “commonwealth” in that way. In fact, we hardly use it at all. With the only remaining use of the word being in the names of states or in the Commonwealth of Nations discussed above, people began to feel that being a commonwealth must be some kind of political status.
Puerto Rico’s commonwealth party reinforced the idea by demanding that the “commonwealth” option be included in status votes. They could not define it very well, since it is basically imaginary, and the federal government has clearly rejected the definitions they were able to put together.
What is Puerto Rico, if not a commonwealth?
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Territory status was, from the beginning, seen as a temporary status for pieces of land belonging to the United States that were not yet ready to become states. Usually this meant waiting to have a population of 60,000 and an organized government. But in the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court came up with the idea of an unincorporated territory, which could continue to be a territory indefinitely.
Puerto Rico got stuck in this position. Now, after more than a century as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is demanding statehood. We want equality as U.S. citizens, and it is clear that the only way to accomplish this is to be admitted as a state. As a state, Puerto Rico will have equal representation in Congress, equal representation in the Electoral College, and equal rights and responsibilities with the rest of the states.
Please join us as we work toward this important goal.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia