The Uncertain Future of Puerto Rico
In November, Puerto Ricans will go to the polls and answer an important question about their future: “Do you want Puerto Rico to be admitted as a state of the United States, Yes or No?”
It is a simple question and intended to produce a clear result.
Hawaii and Alaska answered the same question before joining the U.S.
All Puerto Ricans can express their preference. Those who seek the full rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship can answer “Yes.” Those opposed, for any reason, can answer “No.”
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico can request statehood, but ultimately Congress has the power to determine Puerto Rico’s future.
While the issue of statehood – commonly known as Puerto Rico’s “status” – stagnates, implications are felt daily. Disaster aid for hurricanes and earthquakes trickles out slowly from Congress. The federal Financial Oversight and Management Board exercises authority and control in Puerto Rico. Medicaid and nutrition assistance, which are unlimited in states, are capped in Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s young men and women continue to serve in the U.S. armed forces with distinction. Puerto Ricans are voting for statehood with their feet, moving to the 50 states in record numbers, where they automatically receive the full panoply of democratic rights that are – with the exception of Puerto Rico - the hallmark of the United States.
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About Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, and the Island has belonged to the United States ever since.
In 1917, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens. Everyone born in Puerto Rico is a citizen of the United States.
But Puerto Rico is not a state. It continues to be a territory. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has “plenary” – complete – power over Puerto Rico, as is clear by the authority of the unpopular and congressionally created Federal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) . It is legal for Congress to treat Puerto Rico differently from states, and Puerto Ricans do not share in the same rights and responsibilities as their fellow U.S. citizens.
There are no senators or voting congressional representatives for Puerto Rico. The Island has just one non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress. The people of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections; they have no electors in the Electoral College.
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Puerto Ricans serve in the U.S. military at higher than average rates and yet they cannot vote for their Commander in Chief.
Puerto Ricans fight for democracy around the world and yet do not experience democracy at home.
With so little representation, and no legal requirement that Congress treat Puerto Rico equally, it’s no surprise that Puerto Rico receives less federal attention, protections, and resources than the states.
Puerto Rico is also not a country. While Puerto Rico fields successful sports teams in international sporting events and competes in international beauty pageants, those teams and individuals could also be a part of U.S. delegations. The government of Puerto Rico simply doesn’t have the stature of a nation in the foreign arena, whether at the United Nations, World Bank, or in bilateral discussions with sovereign nations.
And, while the title of Puerto Rico includes the word “commonwealth” (just like the titles of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky), that word has no legal meaning in the United States. Puerto Rico is simply a territory belonging to the United States.