The Political Status of Puerto Rico

The unequal relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico is perceived by some as an anachronistic remnant of the colonial era. The current status of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the U.S., allows the federal government to unilaterally impose a range of measures on the island without enfranchising the people to have a voice in the legislative process.

September 4, 2007

The unequal relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico is perceived by some as an anachronistic remnant of the colonial era. The current status of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the U.S., allows the federal government to unilaterally impose a range of measures on the island without enfranchising the people to have a voice in the legislative process.

Currently, there is a push on both the domestic as well as the international level for a reassessment of Puerto Rico’s status relative to the mainland U.S. Although there is a vigorous disagreement over which of the three main options under consideration (continuation of the commonwealth status, independence, and statehood) would be best for Puerto Rico, there is consensus on the need for Puerto Ricans themselves to play a major role in deciding the island’s fate.

The Issue of Puerto Rico’s Status in U.S. Politics

On the domestic level, two legislative proposals concerning the reassessment of Puerto Rico’s status have been introduced in the 110th U.S. Congress. The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007 proposes a two-round plebiscite, the first round of which would allow the islanders to choose between continuing Puerto Rico’s current status and pursuing a non-territorial relationship. If the latter option wins out, a second round of balloting would decide the specific nature of Puerto Rico’s non-territorial status. The Puerto Rico Self Determination Act of 2007 proposes that the people of Puerto Rico call a Constitutional Convention to formulate a status option that would be subsequently voted on in a referendum.

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the governor of Puerto Rico, has spoken out against the pending Puerto Rico Democracy Act, pointing out that combining both statehood and independence into a single category biases the voting process against the commonwealth option, which enjoys substantial support on the island. After all, according to the Commonwealth Elections Commission of Puerto Rico (CEC), in two of the three past plebiscites on the status of Puerto Rico, the commonwealth option received a plurality of the votes (it obtained 60.4 percent of the votes in 1967 and 48.6 percent in 1993; in the 1998 plebiscite the electorate rejected all options, with 50.3 percent of voters choosing “none of the above”). While criticizing the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, Acevedo Vilá has urged support for the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act, which, in his opinion, would provide for an unbiased way to assess the sentiment of Puerto Ricans in regards to the status of the island. The two proposed pieces of legislation have yet to overcome a number of obstacles before either one can become law, but the fact that both of the proposed acts acknowledge Puerto Ricans’ right to self-determination is viewed by many as a positive development in U.S.-Puerto Rico relations.

If either of the acts allowing for reassessment of Puerto Rico’s status is passed, the islanders will be faced with three choices: continuation of the island’s commonwealth status, incorporation of the island into the Union as the 51st state, or full independence from the U.S.

Continuing the Status Quo

The existing commonwealth arrangement was established in the early 1950s. The Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, passed in 1950, allowed the island significant autonomy in local matters, although the Puerto Rican government remained limited in its capacity as a result of the constitutional powers retained by the U.S. Congress. In accordance with the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has jurisdiction over matters of defense, external trade and international relations.

There has been some discussion of abandoning Puerto Rico’s existing commonwealth status in favor of a “New Commonwealth” status. The proposed option envisions the creation of an autonomous political entity that is in permanent union with, but not subordinate to, the U.S. Critics of this model argue that it is simply not viable since the U.S. Constitution currently does not permit any option other than full independence, statehood, or a territorial status. According to a letter sent by the U.S. Justice Department to Congress on January 18, 2001, the creation of a permanent and equal union between the U.S. and Puerto Rico would also place limitations on the sovereignty of the U.S. Upon entering this arrangement, the president’s power to unilaterally terminate treaties would be curtailed, and some powers vested in the legislature would be lost (as a rule, Congress cannot bind future legislative action), as both Puerto Rico and the U.S. would need to consent to any change in the relationship. However, Richard Pildes, in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs on March 22, 2007, argued that there is a legal precedent for the interpretation of the Constitution in such a way as to allow for a more equal permanent relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. He noted that the Constitution actually requires Congress to adhere to changes in political status established by an earlier Congress (for example, in incorporation of a territory or in granting independence), and that the U.S. has a history of entering into relationships requiring mutual consent.


The statehood option received the second highest number of votes in all three plebiscites held on the status of the island in the past (according to the CEC, it registered 39.0 percent in 1967, 46.3 percent in 1993, and 46.5 percent in 1998). Statehood would put Puerto Rico on an equal footing with other states and eliminate much of the autonomy currently enjoyed by the island’s government. In exchange for decreased local autonomy, Puerto Rico would gain greater representation in the federal government. Like other states, Puerto Rico would have two senators and several voting members in the House of Representatives (currently, Puerto Rico is represented in Congress by its Resident Commissioner in Washington, a member of the House of Representatives who is allowed to serve on committees but is denied a floor vote). Furthermore, those residing on the island would be able to vote in presidential elections and would be eligible, for the first time, to pay federal taxes.

In considering the option of statehood, the cultural dimension of U.S.-Puerto Rican relations should be taken into account. The official languages of Puerto Rico are Spanish and English, but Spanish generally predominates among the islanders. According to the Census Bureau, in 2000, 85.6 percent of those residing on the island reported speaking a language other than English at home (compared to 17.9 percent of the population in the U.S.) and 71.9 percent reported that they spoke English less than “very well” (compared to 8.1 percent of the population in the U.S.). If Puerto Rico is incorporated into the Union, the overwhelmingly English-speaking U.S. will have acquired an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking state. The linguistic difference reflects even bigger historical and cultural disparities between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, starting with the legacy of colonization under British and Spanish rule (respectively). Although its relative geographic isolation may serve to attenuate the effects of incorporation, in the long run it is likely that the distinct culture of the island would fade into that of the mainland. The desirability of such cultural erosion is questionable.


Independence is the third option under consideration. This option has registered much less support in the past than either of the choices already discussed, receiving 0.6 percent of the vote in the 1967 plebiscite, 4.4 percent of the vote in 1993, and 2.5 percent of the vote in 1998. However, in “Puerto Rico: The Puzzle of Human Rights and Self-Determination,” José Javier Colón Morera notes the long-term official suppression of the Puerto Rican independence movement and that the movement is stronger than electoral statistics suggest. Colón Morera also notes that many Puerto Ricans “still resist political change because…no concrete economic transition plan has been devised to show, incrementally, how the island would be assuming the new political responsibilities in a fully non-colonial context.”

As a tradeoff for acquiring the freedom to conduct its own foreign relations, Puerto Rico would be faced with potentially losing the benefits that come from its ties with the U.S. For example, as citizens of the U.S., those born on the island are able to travel to the mainland without restrictions and carry a U.S. passport when traveling elsewhere. The absence of restrictions has allowed island-born Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland for purposes of work and study, and has resulted in substantial remittance flows back to the island. According to Angelo Falcón’s Atlas of Stateside Puerto Ricans, the full extent of remittance flows to the island from Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland is unknown. However, it is estimated that island-born Puerto Ricans send back $417.8 million annually, and that total remittances from the entire stateside diaspora approach $1 billion a year. It is difficult to predict how independence would affect families that rely on remittances as a supplementary source of income, as Puerto Ricans residing on the island may lose their U.S. citizenship and consequently face greater restrictions on their ability to move to the mainland.

In addition to impacting individual families, which benefit from having family members working on the mainland, independence from the U.S. could also have a significant impact on the economy of the island as a whole. A substantial portion of the Puerto Rican government’s revenue comes in the form of monetary transfers from the U.S. federal government. According to the Department of the Treasury, Office of Economic Affairs, in 2005, the Puerto Rican government received $3.69 billion (almost a third of the Puerto Rican government’s $12.44 billion total revenue for that year) in the form of federal grants. The federal grants include money transferred as part of the Nutritional Assistance for Puerto Rico program, which provides nutritional assistance to the low-income segment of the population. According to the program’s website, it served 1.01 million islanders in 2004. The U.S. also plays an important role in the economy of Puerto Rico as its largest trading partner. According to the Puerto Rico Planning Board, in 2005, exports from Puerto Rico to the U.S. totaled $46.7 billion (compared to $1.8 billion worth of goods exported to the Netherlands, the second largest importer of Puerto Rican products). Imports from the U.S. totaled $19.13 billion (compared to $7.7 billion worth of goods received from Ireland, the second largest supplier of goods to Puerto Rico). Independence could compromise the close economic relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. - especially if tariffs are put in place - and could jeopardize the monetary transfers that currently make up a large portion of the Puerto Rican government’s revenue.

In the International Arena

The growing domestic awareness of the need for a reassessment of Puerto Rico’s status has coincided with mounting international support for Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination. In June, the United Nations Special Committee on decolonization passed a resolution calling on the U.S. to expedite Puerto Rico’s process of self-determination. The resolution urged the U.S. to clean up Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island, much of which had been used by the U.S. Navy from the 1940s to 2003 for weapons storage and naval maneuvers (as a consequence of the Navy’s activity, the island’s ecosystem has been contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive materials). The resolution also urged the release of political prisoners. But most importantly, the resolution requested that the question of Puerto Rico be considered in the U.N. General Assembly.

The status of Puerto Rico has not been discussed in the General Assembly since its adoption of resolution 748 (VIII) in 1953. The resolution was adopted after Puerto Rico’s constitution entered into force in 1952. The General Assembly deemed the established political arrangement between the U.S. and Puerto Rico an expression of the island’s self-determination, and stated that the U.S. would no longer have to transmit information to the Secretary-General about the social and economic conditions in Puerto Rico. Indeed, there is some evidence of abuse of power by the U.S. in relation to the islanders. For example, the Amnesty International 2007 report cites an incident in which the FBI used excessive force against a group of journalists covering a police raid on a political activist’s home. The report also cites the suspicious circumstances surrounding the FBI’s fatal shooting of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, an independence activist, in 2005. Under the mantle of resolution 748 (VIII), the question of Puerto Rico’s status continues to be ignored by the General Assembly, despite it having reaffirmed non-self-governing territories’ right to self-determination and independence through the adoption of resolution 1514 (XV) in 1960.

The resolution recently adopted by the Special Committee on decolonization was sponsored by Cuba and Venezuela, the leaders of which have been the most vociferous in denouncing U.S. policies as being imperialistic. The resolution is not the first to be adopted by the Special Committee on decolonization regarding the question of the island’s status, but it is unique in that it may reopen discussion of the matter in the General Assembly. However, it must be noted that the U.N., lacking a mechanism of enforcement, may function only as an indicator of international public opinion. As such, its ability to influence U.S. policy is likely to be extremely limited.

Modernizing the Relationship

The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, during an era in which countries were still concerned with maintaining dependent entities to serve as sources of raw materials, labor as well as strategic military installments and symbols of their power. However, the end of World War II ushered in a period of decolonization. Despite this, Puerto Rico remained trapped in an increasingly anachronistic relationship with the U.S. as an unincorporated territory. Although the people of Puerto Rico may not choose to formally break with the U.S., they should be given the opportunity to voice their opinion, and their collective decision on the status of the island should be readily accepted by the U.S. government in a generosity of good will.

Natalya Berenshteyn is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) in Washington, D.C. This analysis originally appeared on the COHA Web site.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.