The status question is the most important question for Puerto Rico. So who decides Puerto Rico’s status?
Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory belonging to the United States since 1900, when the U.S. federal government defined the position of Puerto Rico. The Island became a possession of the United States when Spain handed it over to the U.S. in 1898.
Didn’t the Puerto Rico constitution change that?
In 1950, Congress passed a bill that allowed Puerto Rico to write a constitution, which Congress would approve. “The bill merely authorizes the people of Puerto Rico to adopt their own constitution and to organize a local government,” Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman clarified. “The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico’s political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.” In other words, Puerto Rico continued to be what it still is today: a territory of the United States.
The three status options which became the foundation of Puerto Rico’s three political parties were these:
- statehood, which would give Puerto Rico an equal position with the 50 states
- independence, under which Puerto Rico would be an independent sovereign nation, with or without a Free Associated State agreement with the U.S.
- “commonwealth,” which some Puerto Rico leaders claimed would be a special arrangement of some kind
The U.S. government has never agreed to the concept of an “enhanced commonwealth” or any special arrangement. The Puerto Rico Constitution did not change the political status of the Island, as Chapman said in 1950 and all branches of the U.S. government have said ever since.
So the “commonwealth” option really is a choice to remain an unincorporated territory of the United States. All territories of the U.S. are under the plenary — that is, complete — control of the U.S. Congress. It says so in the U.S. Constitution, in the section known as the Territorial Clause.
Congress actually decides Puerto Rico’s status.
So far, Congress has chosen to keep Puerto Rico as a territory. They could make Puerto Rico an independent nation, but independence is not popular in Puerto Rico. In each referendum, independence received less than 6% of the votes. Puerto Rico has never elected a member of the Independence Party as governor. It is hard to see any reason for the U.S. Congress to force independence on Puerto Rico, home of 3.5 million U.S. citizens.
Congress could also make Puerto Rico a state. Members of Congress, as well as President-Elect Donald Trump, have generally said that they will respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico. Now that Puerto Rico’s voters have chosen statehood twice, the federal government should take action to make Puerto Rico a state.
Congress has therefore agreed to allow the residents of Puerto Rico to decide their status. But this will only be true if Congress takes action on the decision of the people. If Congress refuses to take action, then Puerto Rico will continue to be a territory. This is why it is so essential to reach out to Congress.
The members of Congress are busy people. If they think their constituents don’t care about Puerto Rico, then they also will not care about Puerto Rico. They need to be educated about Puerto Rico’s status, and they need to understand that Puerto Rico should not continue to be a territory.