What’s the Current Relationship Between Puerto Rico and the United States?

In 1996, the U.S. Congress announced in House report 104-713 that Puerto Rico does not have “full self-government”:

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.

That is, Puerto Rico can only have sovereignty by becoming an independent nation, or by becoming a state.

Here’s more from the same report:

The Commonwealth remains an unincorporated territory and does not have the status of “free association” with the United States as that status is defined under United States law or international practice.

At that time, some people claimed that Puerto Rico, being a “commonwealth,” already had “free association” with the United States. Puerto Rico, and was not “a mere territory.”

Supreme Court cases over the past few years, as well as the reports of task forces under several presidents, and statements in Congress, have made it abundantly clear that Puerto Rico continues to be a territory of the United States.

No alchemy

Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in 1899 when Spain ceded (that is, gave) the Island to the United States. A 2020 report from the Council on Foreign Relations shows no changes since then in Puerto Ricos’ status. The report lists changes which have given Puerto Rico greater degree of home rule, such as citizenship in 1917 and the ability to elect the governor in 1947, but points out that other territories have had similar changes.

There is nothing special about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, from a legal perspective. Puerto Rico is a territory, and Congress makes all the rules about territories, as specified in the Territorial Clause.

Puerto Rico still can only have sovereignty by becoming an independent nation, or by becoming a state. Click To Tweet

As Robert Raben, Assistant Attorney General at the time, explained in a memo, “The terms of the Constitution do not contemplate an option other than sovereign independence, statehood, or territorial status.”

Don’t be deceived

Do you like living in an unincorporated territory? Are you happy with less federal funding, no say about the laws that apply to you, no voice in presidential elections, and a limited voice in American democracy?

Congress makes the decision of whether to admit Puerto Rico as a state or not. All three branches of the federal government have clearly stated that they are prepared to consider only three options: independence, statehood, or territorial status.

“Enhanced commonwealth,” even if it is dressed up as “Free Association,” is off the table. The U.S. government has said so many times.

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