As Puerto Rico continues to struggle to end its status as a U.S. territory – or colony- it is instructive to look at what has happened to former colonies around the world.
Many current nations have a colonial past, a time when they belonged to another country just as Puerto Rico is currently a possession of the United States. Some nations, like the Philippines, rejected their status as a possession of another nation and became fully independent. Filipinos did not have U.S. citizenship, but they lost their status of U.S. nationals and gradually gave up most financial support from the U.S., while maintaining some connections with the U.S. military and some foreign aid.
But there are other possibilities.
France was a colonial power in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, and also had some North and South American colonies. France’s membership in the European Union includes French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, La Reunion and Saint-Martin. All of these “French overseas departments” are part of France, as the states of the U.S. are part of the United States. Residents are French citizens. There is no additional citizenship for the island on which they reside. The islands are not members of the United Nations.
Similarly, the France d’outre-mer includes 13 smaller areas, such as French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Its residents also have French citizenship and are represented in the French parliament. Residents can vote in French elections.
These small islands around the world have been derisively referred to as “empire confetti.” Despite protests that arise periodically, reporting about these regions indicated that any push for their independence for them has “petered out.”
Portugal was a major colonial power with possessions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Portugal lost most of its colonies in the 20th century in a series of violent revolutions. The last of these colonies was Macau, which was returned to China in 1999, leaving just the Azores and Madeira as autonomous departments of Portugal. Both have representation in the Portuguese government but also have their own governments, which include a representative appointed by Portugal. The reason for keeping possession of these places was that the majority of the people living there were at that point of Portugese heritage.
Portugal’s EU membership includes both the Azores and Madeira. The islands are not separate members of the United Nations. Their residents are citizens of Portugal. Citizenship of Madeira or the Azores does not exist.
At the end of the 15th century, a European treaty divided the world between Spain and Portugal. Spain was the most important colonial power in the Americas and had colonies in Africa and the Caribbean as well. Spain gave up land that became 10 of the current U.S. states and five current or former U.S. territories in the 19th century.
Spain is a member of the EU, and its membership includes the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands. However, Spain has more overseas possessions. Spain shares with France the governance of a few Mediterranean islands; each of the two nations governs these islands for six months of the year. Altogether, Spain has 17 autonomous regions as well as two autonomous cities in Morocco. All these regions are considered part of Spain, just as the states are all considered part of the United States. They do not offer their residents separate citizenship or representation at the United Nations. The people of these places are Spanish citizens.
Lessons for Puerto Rico
These overseas parts of European nations — whether they are called overseas departments or autonomous regions or autonomous communities — are essentially part of the nations with which they are affiliated, with political participation and rights for their citizens and no separate citizenship or international recognition at the United Nations.
All maps courtesy of Wikipedia.
Updated October 11, 2023