There’s always been a strain of support for Puerto Rican independence, going back to the time when Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony. In 1950, a core group of dedicated independentistas advocated violent revolution and went so far as to attempt to assassinate then-President Harry Truman.
Yet independence has never been a popular choice among Puerto Rico voters. When placed on a plebiscite ballot, the option never received more than 5% of the votes, and no governor or resident commissioner from the Independence Party has ever been elected. This may be because Puerto Ricans prize their U.S. citizenship, which would be vulnerable if Puerto Rico were to ever become a sovereign nation.
There are independence movements around the world, both large and small. Here are a few currently active independence movements.
Catalonia, one of the autonomous communities of Spain (much like the states of the United States), has had a vigorous independence movement for years. In 2017, they held a referendum which resulted in over 90% of votes for independence. The anti-independence forces had boycotted the plebiscite, but nobody boycotts a vote they can win. Catalonia declared independence for a brief time, but the independence movement lost support after the central Spanish government cracked down on the separatist cause. The European Union refused to recognize the vote, let alone the Catalan nation.
Catalonia was a separate nation from Castile, the forerunner of modern Spain, in the Middle Ages. Catalan, a Romance language which is separate from Spanish, is still widely spoken in Catalonia, with most of the residents considering themselves bilingual in Spanish and Catalan. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in the 1500s led to the unification of Spain as a nation.
Catalonia is one of the richest parts of Spain, and its residents often feel that they put more into the unified Spain than they receive from it. However, the experience of Great Britain during Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine have all served to reduce the desire for separation. Smaller countries do not seem to be in a beneficial position internationally right now, some former separatists explain.
Scotland is is part of the United Kingdom. They held a referendum in 2014 in which independence lost 55-45%. However, after Brexit, when Scotland decided to remain in the European Union while England left, the Scottish independence movement has raised its head again. Several members of the Scottish National Party have recently been arrested on charges of corruption. While staying in the UK has been in the majority in most recent polls, the difference between the Yes and No factions has varied month by month.
Scotland was separate from England until the early 1700s, when the United Kingdom was formed. The history of the two nations was complex and included, like the histories of many other European nations, changes of power resulting from marriages between monarchs. In the 20th century, Scotland took on more autonomy, and the pro-independence Scottish National Party came into power in the 21st century. Nonetheless, independence has yet to win a status vote in Scotland.
Iraq recognized Kurdistan as an autonomous region in 1970, accepting Kurdish as the official language of Kurdistan and establishing the Kurdistan Regional Government. However, Kurdistan has continued to have a lively independence movement. Kurdistan held a referendum on independence in 2017 and independence won about 92% of the vote. Iraq did not agree to change the political status of Kurdistan.
There are Kurdish people in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They have faced hardships and discrimination since the end of the Ottoman Empire. In 1962, Syria recounted citizenship for Kurds who could not prove that they had lived in Syria before 1945, leaving thousands — and their descendants — unable to vote, to own property, or even to marry. Iran declared war on the Kurds in 1979. To this day, Kurdistan has been involved in violent conflicts within and among the nations that surround it.
The Philippines became an independent nation in 1946 after being a territory of the United States and, before that, occupation by Japan, as well as Spain. In the early 20th century, the Moro region of the Philippines petitioned to become part of the United States rather than part of the Republic of the Philippines, and this region continues to have a separatist movement.
The Federal Republic of Mindanao declared its independence from the Philippines in the late 20th century, but it was never recognized as a separate nation. The Philippines currently has another half dozen independence movements in various areas. Some are specifically for Muslim people, some for specific islands, and some for particular political groups.
Tiny independence movements
The Canary Islands has, like Puerto Rico, a tiny independence movement. So does Texas. The Falkland Islands held a referendum on their political status and independence received three votes. At this point, there may be hundreds of tiny independence movements around the world, with little chance of gaining sufficient popular support to achieve independence.
“Even with popular support,” says The Conversation about separatist movements, “these movements rarely have the political or military capacity to impose their will on the state from which they intend to secede…Having overcome daunting odds of achieving independence, the success of post-secessionist states has, on balance, been poor. Bangladesh has struggled between periods of incapable civilian government, military coups and a state of emergency. Since independence in 1991, Eritrea has been an authoritarian one-party state with no political activity allowed.”