Sana Saeed of AJ+ has posted a “six minute history of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
At the conclusion of the video Ms. Saeed notes the lack of available information about Puerto Rico, an observation that is at the heart of the creation of the Puerto Rico Report. Ms. Saeed’s video is concise, engaging and informative, and it is a welcome addition to the Puerto Rico education effort.
As Saeed points out, many people in the United States are not even aware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Understanding the historical relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico helps clarify why the U.S. Congress has a responsibility to Puerto Rico.
Building on Saeed’s video, there are some points on which we’d like to elaborate.
First, being an unincorporated territory, as Puerto Rico has been for more than a century, means that local governance is always limited. The Spanish Charter of Autonomy, granted in 1897, led to a brief rule by a local government under Spain, which had owned Puerto Rico as a colony for 400 years. That charter didn’t keep Spain from giving Puerto Rico to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. It never made Puerto Rico an independent nation or even an autonomous territory. The power of the PROMESA oversight board is nothing new in the history of Puerto Rico.
Equally, the Puerto Rico Constitution approved in 1952 increased the responsibility of the local government, but it didn’t change the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. “Commonwealth” is a word in Puerto Rico’s official name, just as it is in the name of Kentucky. It has no special legal meaning in either case.
It’s also important to recognize that the end of Section 936 is not the cause the current economic problems, or the high level of unemployment in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s problems run much deeper, and the broader U.S. – which never had a Section 936 – has likewise struggled with its manufacturing sector.
Puerto Rico’s political status allows the federal government to treat the Island differently from States. This shows up in many economic differences that have affected Puerto Rico’s economy over the years.
A voice for Puerto Ricans is important and shouldn’t be an abstraction. The reality is, for U.S. citizens having your voice heard means having federal voting rights that come only with citizenship of a state, not with national citizenship alone. Residents of Puerto Rico can’t vote in presidential elections or have full representation in Congress — unless they move to a State. Without statehood, Puerto Rico will never have a full voice in U.S. democracy.
As AJ+ appears to recognize, the current territorial status is outdated. It is worth taking a closer look at it. On Sunday, the people of Puerto Rico will have a chance to do just that.