Puerto Rico is in a somewhat unique position as far as American territories go. The island is one of fourteen territories of the United States and has been that way since 1898, when Span ceded the island to America as a result of the Spanish-American war.
However, unlike other American territories, many in Puerto Rico do not want to continue their current territorial status and instead want to see the island become a full-fledged state. This is a very complicated issue that contains complicated political, policy, and tactical discussions.
Puerto Rico’s Current Status
Puerto Rico is a territory within the United States. Specifically, it is one of five inhabited territories within the country, with the other four being American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Puerto Rico designates itself as a Commonwealth that operates within the United States. This term comes from the Constitution of Puerto Rico, adopted in 1952, which sets out the basic governing framework and relationship with the United States.
This territory status means Puerto Rico is not a state. It does not have voting representation in the federal government and is not entitled to the constitutional protections that statehood grants. Puerto Rican residents are not required to pay federal taxes but are also not eligible for many federal benefits. As a result, federal administration has broader control over the island and its governing structure than it would over a state.
That is not to say that Puerto Rican residents have no benefits of United States citizenship. Puerto Ricans can come and go from any other United States location without any passports. They are also granted a limited set of Constitutional protections.
How Did Puerto Rico Get to Where It Is Today?
Puerto Rico’s history as a territory within the broader United States owes to its complicated history.
Originally, the Spanish Empire controlled the island. However, Spain ceded control of Puerto to the United States in the Treaty of Paris, which concluded the Spanish-American war. As a result, Puerto Rico has been under American control since 1898.
The island’s time under United States control hasn’t always been peaceful and has been marked by efforts to turn Puerto Rico into a sovereign nation or full statehood. In 1950, terrorists who wanted to see the island become its own independent state attempted to kill President Truman, although the attack failed.
Generally speaking, policymakers believe Puerto Rico has three options for its continued governance. They include:
- Petition the United States to turn Puerto Rico into a full state with the rights and responsibilities therein.
- Continuation of its Commonwealth/Territory status, potentially with slight changes to the ongoing relationship.
- Sever governing relationship with the United States and turn the country into an independent republic.
Since 1967, Puerto Rico has had six referendums on its governing status. These referendums were never meant to be binding. Instead, they were meant to inform the population and policymakers about how to govern the island. The results of these elections have been highly disparate:
- 1967: Maintain Commonwealth status (60.7%)
- 1993: Maintain Commonwealth status (48.6%, beating statehood with 46.3% and independent nation with 4.4%)
- 1998: None of the above (50.3%, beating statehood with 46.5% and independent nation with 2.5%)
- 2012: In this two-part election, 54% of Puerto Ricans said “no” to continuing its current status. In the follow-up election later that year, 61.2% wanted to choose statehood, 33.3% wanted to choose “free association,” and 5.5% chose independence.
- 2017: Statehood (97.1%)
- 2020: Statehood (52.4%)
As you can see, Puerto Rico has had many different results over time. However, the latest movement has been in favor of statehood.
Arguments In Factor of Statehood
Supporters of statehood in Puerto Rico make many points, including:
- Statehood would improve the ability of the island to get aid and resources from federal authorities. This issue became particularly prominent in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island. At the time, Puerto Rican authorities argued that the Commonwealth’s territorial status – among other factors – limited federal resources and response.
- Statehood would guarantee enhanced representation for Puerto Rico at the federal level, giving them multiple members of the House of Representatives and two United States Senators.
- Puerto Rican citizens would qualify for all federal benefits. At the moment, they only qualify for a few.
On the island, Puerto Rican statehood supporters include prominent local officials of Puerto Rico’s major political parties. This includes Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner (member of Congress) Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon and Pedro Pierluisi, Governor of Puerto Rico. In addition, many prominent American politicians – including President Joe Biden – have spoken about Puerto Rican statehood. Members of the Democratic party generally support Puerto Rican statehood.
Arguments Against Statehood
As you can imagine, many arguments are also against Puerto Rican statehood. These include:
- Puerto Ricans would have to pay more taxes, including the U.S. income tax.
- Such a move could cost Puerto Rican’s a degree of international independence, removing their ability to participate in some competitions, like the Olympic Games.
- Becoming an independent nation could disproportionately impact the poor residents of the citizens of Puerto Rico, many of whom rely extensively on the aid programs that the United States offers.
On the island, Puerto Rican statehood is typically opposed by the Popular Democratic Party and the Puerto Rican Independence Party. In the United States, members of the Republican party are generally viewed as the chief opponents of Puerto Rican statehood or full independence.
The Immediate Future
An Act of Congress – signed by the President of the United States – is required to make Puerto Rico a state. That seems unlikely. At the tail end of the 2021-2022 Congress, the United States House of Representatives passed a law that made Puerto Rico a state. The bill passed 233-191, with the vast majority of the yes votes coming from the Democratic party. The Senate did not act on the legislation.
Republicans control the new House. Given their past opposition to Puerto Rican statehood, it seems extremely unlikely that Puerto Rico will become a state – at least for the next two years.