BRIA 17 4 c Puerto Rico: Commonwealth, Statehood, or Independence?

Bill of Right in Action
Fall 2001 (17:4) 

Law of Empires

BRIA 17:4 Home | Clash of Empires: The Fight for North America | When Roman Law Ruled the Western World | Puerto Rico: Commonwealth, Statehood, or Independence?

Puerto Rico: Commonwealth, Statehood, or Independence?

For more than 100 years, Puerto Rico has been a territorial possession of the United States. Both the Puerto Rican people and the U.S. Congress face a difficult choice about the future of this Caribbean island.

Vieques Island is a part of Puerto Rico, which has been a territorial possession of the United States since the Spanish-American War. Early in World War II, the U.S. Navy took over much of Vieques, dislocating dozens of families. Today, the Navy uses the eastern end of Vieques as a weapons testing range.

In 1999, a bomb went astray on the Vieques testing range and killed a Puerto Rican security guard who worked for the U.S. Navy. This incident provoked major protests and demands that the Navy immediately leave the island. The Navy maintains that the testing facility is essential for U.S. defense. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush has promised that the Navy will give up Vieques, but not before 2003.

Many Puerto Ricans have taken up the Vieques cause as a symbol of their dissatisfaction with Puerto Rico's current political status as a "commonwealth." Some even refer to Puerto Rico today as "the world's oldest colony."

"The Taste of Empire"

Following the Civil War, America's rapidly growing industrial and sea power in the world awakened U.S. interest in acquiring new territories. In the words of one newspaper at the time, "The taste of empire is in the mouth of the people." The opportunity came with a war with Spain.

Spain had ruled its colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico for 400 years. In 1897, Spain granted both their own elected parliaments. Puerto Rico's parliament met for the first time on April 25, 1898, the day the United States declared war on Spain.

Two months before, in February 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine had blown up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. The United States blamed the tragedy on the Spanish and demanded that they immediately grant independence to Cuba, where a revolt was already underway. When Spain refused, the United States declared war and invaded Cuba.

Fearing that Spain might surrender before the United States could occupy other Spanish colonies, U.S. leaders ordered General Nelson Miles to invade Puerto Rico on July 25. The Spanish-speaking civilian population warmly welcomed the Americans, apparently believing they had come to help Puerto Rico become a free, independent nation. Instead, Miles invited the Puerto Rican people to "accept with joy the system of Government of the United States."

A few months later, the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the war. Spain recognized Cuba's independence, but handed over possession of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States. Regarding Puerto Rico, the treaty stated that "the civil rights and political conditions of the natural inhabitants shall be determined by the Congress." It has been that way ever since.

American Colonial Rule

For the next two years, American military governors, appointed by the president, governed Puerto Rico. These governors improved health, education, and economic conditions. But they also abolished the newly elected Puerto Rican parliament, appointed only Americans to head government departments, and censored local newspapers. The last military governor remarked that Puerto Ricans were still "unfit for self-government."

In 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act establishing a civilian government for Puerto Rico. Under the act, the U.S. president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, appointed the governor, the heads of government departments, and justices of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court. Puerto Rican voters elected delegates to a single-house legislature as well as a "Resident Commissioner." The commissioner represented Puerto Rico's interests in Washington, but not as a member of Congress. The Foraker Act also exempted Puerto Ricans from having to pay federal taxes. Federal grants would finance the new civilian government.

For the first time, U.S. courts had to decide the constitutional status of America's newly acquired overseas possessions. Article IV, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution gives to Congress the "Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States. . . ."

In a series of decisions between 1901 and 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court held that acquisitions like Puerto Rico were territories "owned by the United States." Congress, therefore, had the power to pass laws to determine their political status. The Supreme Court further ruled that only "fundamental rights," not the full U.S. Bill of Rights, protected the inhabitants of territorial possessions including Puerto Rico.

Under the Foraker Act, the U.S. president must appoint a U.S. citizen as governor of Puerto Rico. The appointed governors continued the military government policy of allowing only English instruction in the public schools. (Spanish again became the primary language in the schools after World War II.)

In 1917, Congress passed the Jones Act, which expanded the Puerto Rican legislature to two houses. Most importantly, this law also granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. But the law still excluded them from voting for president and exercising other rights of mainland American citizens.


During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed that Congress pass a law granting the people of Puerto Rico the right to elect their governor. Congress passed Roosevelt's proposal into law after the war, and Puerto Rican voters elected their first governor in 1948.

Two years later, Congress enacted a procedure to expand democratic self-government by enabling the Puerto Rican people to write their own constitution. A constitutional convention submitted a new constitution to the Puerto Rican voters who overwhelmingly approved it. Next, Congress approved it, but eliminated its bill of rights, which included broad guarantees such as the "right to an adequate standard of living." Finally, on July 3, 1952, President Truman signed the law putting into effect the constitution for the "Commonwealth of Puerto Rico."

Since 1952, the Puerto Rican people have continued to debate the future status of their homeland. A majority of Puerto Ricans have thus far failed to agree on whether Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth concept, be admitted as a state, or become an independent nation.

Unlike the Philippines, which became independent in 1946, and Hawaii, which became a state in 1959, the future of Puerto Rico's political status continues to be uncertain. Many Puerto Ricans say they want more control over their island's affairs, as the continuing Vieques protest seems to indicate. But neither the Puerto Rican people nor Congress have decided exactly which path to take into the future.


Option 1: Current Commonwealth

  • Puerto Ricans are American citizens who serve in the military and may reside in the United States.
  • Puerto Rico has a constitution that provides for self-government in most local matters and includes the right to elect a governor and two-house legislature.
  • Puerto Ricans are exempt from the federal income tax, but pay into Social Security.
  • Federal grants (more than $10 billion annually) finance a large portion of Puerto Rico's government.
  • Puerto Rico is a territorial possession under the authority of Congress.
  • The United Nations still debates whether Puerto Rico is a colony.

Option 2: "Enhanced" Commonwealth

  • Includes all items listed in Option 1
  • Provides the right to vote for U.S. president and elect a voting representative to Congress (would probably require amending the U.S. Constitution).
  • Adds a bill of rights to the Constitution of Puerto Rico.
  • Allows membership in trade and other world organizations.
  • These enhancements would all have to be approved by Congress, which would continue holding ultimate power over Puerto Rico as a territorial possession.

Option 3: Statehood

  • Puerto Rico would have equal status with the other 50 states and would no longer be under congressional authority.
  • Two senators and about seven congressional representatives would represent Puerto Rico in Congress.
  • Federal financial benefits would increase, but Puerto Ricans would pay federal income taxes.
  • Some businesses would lose tax breaks.
  • Congress would probably require English as the primary language of government and the public schools as a condition of statehood.

Option 4: Independence

  • Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation with its own political system, language, culture, and membership in the United Nations.
  • The United States would no longer be obligated to provide financial support, but would lose all military bases unless Puerto Rico agreed to lease them.
  • Some or all Puerto Ricans would likely lose U.S. citizenship and the right to reside in the United States.
  • Puerto Rico would be a poor nation, depending on foreign aid from other nations.

Puerto Ricans Vote on Options

Puerto Rico has held a series of plebiscites on its future status. The latest was held in 1998. With more than 1.5 million voters casting ballots and a turnout rate of 71.3 percent of all registered voters, the results were as follows:

Puerto Ricans Vote on Options

Number of Votes
Percent of Votes
Territorial Commonwealth 993
Free Association 4,536
Statehood 728,157
Independence 39,838
None of the above 787,900
Blank and void ballots 4,846

U.S. Public Opinion on the Status of Puerto Rico

A March 1998 Gallup poll asked this question:

Do you personally think Puerto Rico: Should become a completely independent nation; should remain a territory of the United States, or, should be admitted to the United States as the fifty-first state?

Become independent
Remain a US territory
Be admitted as the fifty-first state
No opinion

In a 1991 Gallup poll more than 60 percent of Americans said they would support independence or statehood for Puerto Rico if a majority of Puerto Ricans voted for either one.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. How is Puerto Rico's political status today different from that of a U.S. state? How is it different from a nation?

  2. Do you think Puerto Rico is still an American colony? Why?

  3. Do you think the U.S. Navy should leave Vieques Island? Why?

For Further Information

Resources on the Puerto Rico Statehood Question

U.S. Council for Puerto Rico Statehood

PR Online Resource Center In depth information on Puerto Rico's political status debate.

Puerto Rican Independence Party

Elections in Puerto Rico Results of all Puerto Rican elections and plebiscites.


Choosing a Political Status for Puerto Rico

  1. Divide the class into two parts. The students in one-half will represent the interests of Puerto Rico. The other half will be members of Congress, representing the interests of the United States.

  2. All students should study the "Political Status Options for Puerto Rico."

  3. While the members of Congress observe from an outer circle, the representatives of Puerto Rico meet in an inner circle to discuss which option they believe is best for Puerto Rico. One seat in the inner circle will be reserved for any member of Congress who wishes to speak. Finally, the representatives of Puerto Rico will vote to decide which option they recommend to Congress.

  4. The members of Congress now meet in the inner circle, while those representing Puerto Rico observe from the outer circle. The members of Congress discuss which option they believe is best for the United States. One seat will be reserved in the inner circle for any representative of Puerto Rico who wishes to speak.

  5. After all have had a chance to speak, the members of Congress will vote to decide which option they will approve. Its decision is final.



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