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.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.
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. 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. Of course, another hurdle for Puerto Rican statehood would be to find enough room on the US flag to add another star.
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. 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.
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. 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.