Puerto Rico: Taxation without Representation?

Puerto Rico is a beautiful island in the Caribbean and maybe the place for your next vacation. The isle measures about 9’000km2 (between the size of Delaware and Connecticut), is home to over three million people, and has a nominal GDP slightly above Hawaii’s. When it comes to its legal status however, things get a little more complicated. According to US law, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory without free association.[1]But what does this mean exactly?

Puerto Rico’s current legal status

The native people of Puerto Rico call themselves boricua. They inhabited the island for about a millennium before it fell under Spanish colonial rule in 1493. After the Spanish-American war in 1898, the Spanish had to concede the island to the US. Ever since then, Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States. 

Nowadays, the people of the island are simultaneously Americans and Puerto Ricans. On one hand, they do have US citizenship, they pay (some) federal taxes such as social security taxes or commodity taxes, and in case of a draft they would have to serve in the US military. On the other hand, they are not allowed to vote in the presidential elections (except for the primaries), they do not have any senators and their one delegate in the House of Representatives can speak but does not have a vote. 

Thus, a quarter of a millennium after the no-taxation-without-representation movement, Puerto Rico is still not represented adequately. But in the last few decades, there have been more and more signs that this may change soon. How will the future of Puerto Rico’s legal status look like? There are three main possibilities: remain in its current status, gain US statehood, or gain independence.

Statehood 

Puerto Rico could become the 51st state of the United States of America (or 52nd if the Washington DC statehood campaign is successful). In many areas, Puerto Rico would not be an outlier, for example it would neither be the smallest (Rhode Island) nor the only non-continental state (Hawaii). While Spanish is also spoken in other states, it is the predominant language in Puerto Rico. Yet, the idea of the US as a melting pot is based on the integration of multicultural communities.

Plans of statehood also face institutional obstacles. As with any change in Puerto Rico’s legal status, the US Congress has to vote on plans for statehood. Today, in the very polarized environment of US politics, this poses a rather big hurdle for the admission of more states into the Union. Due to the filibuster, an institutional mechanism in the US Senate that asks for a qualified majority of 60 out of 100 votes, any efforts for Puerto Rico statehood need bipartisan support.[2] In comparison to DC statehood, this may not be as challenging in the case of the Caribbean island. Since Puerto Rico would be considered a purple state, meaning neither Democrats nor Republicans have a clear majority, the two additional Senate seats as well as the added seats in the House of Representatives would be up for grabs. Currently, there is a bill in its early stages in the House (H.R.1522) that could bring Puerto Rico closer to statehood.[3] Of course, another hurdle for Puerto Rican statehood would be to find enough room on the US flag to add another star.

Independence

In contrast to this, the movement for independence wants Puerto Rico to become an independent country. Other movements for regional independence exist globally, for example in Spain (Catalonia) or in the United Kingdom (Scotland). In the case of the Caribbean island though, this would be less of a cession of a consolidated state and more of a commonwealth attaining independence. The way of implementing this independence differs within the movement. While some voices in the movement unequivocally want the unincorporated territory to become an autonomous country, others also see a possibility in Puerto Rico being a freely associated state. This would give the island more autonomy without making it an independent country.

For the Puerto Ricans that are working towards independence, the House bill (H.R.2070) presents an opening. [4] This bill was introduced as a response to H.R.1522 to not only offer statehood but more diverse possibilities. So far, the exact wording of the bill does not yet exist, but its goal is to establish a number of options for the island’s future, including independence. In a second step, the Puerto Ricans would vote on what path they want.[5]

Public Will of Puerto Ricans

There is one hurdle that precedes all the challenges the aforementioned paths pose: deciphering the will of Puerto Ricans. Several plebiscites have been made but so far, there have been no conclusive results. The last one was a non-binding vote on 3rd November 2020. While other US citizens were voting in the presidential elections, 55% of registered Puerto Rican voters turned out to voice their opinion. The result was 52.5% for and 47.5% against statehood – ambiguous.[6] Past plebiscites were confronted with similar problems such as boycotts that made decisive results impossible. However, without a democratic legitimate expression of the public will, Puerto Rico will continue to remain at odds with its legal status.


[1] “United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act”, U.S. Government Publishing Office, 26th July 1996. 

[2] “House passes DC statehood bill that faces long odds in the Senate”, CNBC, 22nd April 2021.

[3] “H.R.1522 – To provide for the admission of the State of Puerto Rico into the Union”, Congress.gov, 9th May 2021. 

[4] “H.R.2070 – To recognize the right of the People of Puerto Rico to call a status convention through which the people would exercise their natural right to self-determination, and to establish a mechanism for congressional consideration of such decision, and for other purposes”, Congress.gov, 9th May 2021. 

[5] “House Hearing on Puerto Rico”, PR51st, 14th April 2021. 

[6] “Plebiscite Island Wide Results”, CEE, 12th March 2021. 

Case study Nagorno-Karabakh: What happens when international cooperation fails?

A few weeks ago, we discussed the limitations of the international community when it comes to intra-state conflicts. Today, we focus on how international organizations can cooperate to prevent inter-state conflicts, what happens when cooperation fails and how future failures can be prevented: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict serves as an ideal case study to examine these three elements. 

In 1988 amidst the crumbling Soviet Union, a war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Six years and approximately 30’000 deaths later, a Russia-brokered ceasefire ended the immediate belligerence. Yet, due to the obvious fragility of the truce, further international cooperation would be necessary to attain peace and prevent future wars. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war is proof that this international cooperation failed. 

Failed attempts at international cooperation

While the 1994 ceasefire ended the immediate fighting, the conflict was frozen but far from over. The problem with frozen conflicts is, that time alone does not solve them, cooperation does. With diplomatic relations and friendly advances, the two countries could have ended the conflict once and for all– but they didn’t. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan took the first step towards burying the hatchet. 

The international community made some efforts towards resolving the conflict. The most prominent example is the Minsk Group, an OSCE institution founded in 1992 with the purpose of resolving tensions between the two countries. Despite several rounds of negotiation and the creation of the Madrid Principles, the group faced heavy criticism for its apparent failure of mediation. [1]

Conflict resolution attempts were also made by the United Nations. The security council passed a total of four resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) that condemned the violations of the 1994 ceasefire, called for a return to the negotiating table, and prompted Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory. All attempts failed. The ceasefire was a missed opportunity to resolve the conflict diplomatically. 

So, what must change to bring about fruitful international cooperation when the next opportunity arises?

Why the chances of successful international cooperation are slim

According to political scientists Axelrod and Keohane, there are three main aspects that facilitate/hinder international cooperation – the mutuality of interest, the so-called shadow of the future and the number of actors.[2] In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh, we find obstacles in all three categories.

The object of interest was the territory between the two countries including the self-proclaimed independent Nagorno-Karabakh region. Under international law, this territory is part of Azerbaijan, yet Armenian forces have occupied the area since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Since both belligerents want all of the disputed land, the interests are completely diverging. There is very little room for compromise due to the cultural and historic significance of the territory and neither party is willing to divide the land because that would legitimize the opponents claim to the area.

When it comes to war, the shadow of the future does often not seem so dark. Why cooperate and compromise if you can just achieve your goals with war? The mistrust that dominates the international field is especially present in this context. In war, the first mover advantage benefits the aggressor and thus increases the risk of escalation. It is only after homes have been destroyed and lives have been lost that the actual cost of war is felt. 

Even though the conflict started as a local dispute, there are now many actors involved. Turkey has a strong allegiance to Azerbaijan, Russia has a military base in Armenia, both countries are part of the UN and the OSCE. This complicated net of relations increases the stakes and turns the conflict into a regional powder keg. If even one actor breaches an agreement, decisive retaliation may result in complete escalation. Joint efforts by international organizations such as the UN or the OSCE were made difficult because both belligerent countries are member states and would thus oppose decisive action that went against their interests.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

It would be wrong to abandon hope for international cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, failed attempts from the last two decades have shown that it is no easy task. While the international community can try to facilitate cooperation between the two belligerents, the most basic requirement for success is the will for diplomacy in both countries. As long as either party is unwilling to compromise, it is only a question of time until the third Nagorno-Karabakh war breaks out.


[1] Hess Sargsyan, Anna. “Nagorno-Karabahk: Obstacles to a Negotiated Settlement.” CSS Analyses in Security Policy 131 (2013).

[2] Axelrod, Robert, and Robert O. Keohane. “Achieving cooperation under anarchy: Strategies and institutions.” World Politics: A Quarterly Journal of International Relations (1985): 226-254.