The Meaning of “Commonwealth”

Puerto Rico is often called a commonwealth, but that is actually just a word in the official title of the government of Puerto Rico. Kentucky is also a commonwealth, as are Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Clearly, these states are no different from states like California and Arkansas, which do not refer to themselves as a commonwealth.

So why is Puerto Rico frequently referred to as a commonwealth and what does this term really mean?  The answer to the first part of this question is clear: some people began to call Puerto Rico a commonwealth in 1952 after Congress approved its local constitution, the “Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”  At the time, Congress was explicit that its gift of local power did not lessen federal control over the Island or change its status as a territory.

Since 1952, the term “commonwealth,” has evolved to describe a potential relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico in which Puerto Rico is given special rights and privileges greater than those enjoyed by states.  Under a proposed “Commonwealth” government, Puerto Rico can ignore federal laws, sign treaties with foreign countries, and receive federal funding with no strings attached, all while possessing irrevocable U.S. citizenship and forcing the U.S. to maintain Puerto Rican policies it may no longer want by mandating a “mutual consent” clause in an initial U.S.-Puerto Rico pact.

United States officials representing all three branches of government have rejected “Commonwealth” proposals as unconstitutional and unfeasible.  They have done so many times over the course of many years.  “Commonwealth” is clearly not an option that the U.S. federal government accepts – as a matter of law or policy.

The last statement on this topic came in 2011 from The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico, in which the White House clarified that, ““[u]nder the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S.Constitution.”

Despite this record, the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico (which is not affiliated to the U.S. Democratic Party and is also known informally as the “Commonwealth” Party) was permitted to place a “Commonwealth” option on plebiscite ballots – one definition of “Commonwealth” in 1967 and a different definition on the 1993 ballot.  In 1998, no “Commonwealth” option was allowed on the plebiscite ballot.  The Commonwealth party urged its supporters to vote for “none of the above” in protest; many did so and this option became an inexact proxy for “Commonwealth” support.

The confusion and lack of understanding over the “Commonwealth” option in Puerto Rico led to inconclusive plebiscite results in 1967, 1993 and 1998.  The only firm conclusion reached from the three votes was that the vast majority of Puerto Ricans want to move beyond the status quo. The 2012 referendum confirmed this, with 54% of voters voting against the status quo. When asked what new option they preferred, 61% chose statehood.

A 2014 federal law provides funding for yet another plebescite.  As Puerto Rico’s next referendum approaches, the Puerto Rico Report will provide updates on how plebiscite options are being interpreted in Puerto Rico.

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