Puerto Rico is often called a “commonwealth” of the United States. Sometimes it is called a territory, and in certain laws it is referred to as a possession of the U.S.
Which is it? And what is a “commonwealth” anyway?
Six U.S. jurisdictions use the word “Commonwealth” in their official names. Four are States — Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. (In addition, Vermont and Delaware used “commonwealth” in some early documents.)
Two U.S. non-State jurisdictions use “Commonwealth” in the names of their local governments: the Northern Mariana Islands as well as Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico, like the Northern Marianas, is a U.S. area subject to congressional governing authority under the U.S. Constitution’s Territory Clause — in other words, a territory.
The Supreme Court has said that it has not been incorporated into the United States; it is a possession.
So, territory, unincorporated territory, and possession all accurately describe Puerto Rico’s political status (and also describe other non-State island areas under U.S. jurisdiction).
“Commonwealth” does not. “Commonwealth” is not a specific political status.
The term “commonwealth” is generally used to describe unions of people or nations created for “the common weal” or the common good. Examples are the Commonwealth of Australia and the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose free association among 54 nations – 52 of which were formerly part of the British Empire.
And “Commonwealth” is only part of the Government of Puerto Rico’s official name in English. Its official name was written in Spanish in words that literally translate as Associated Free State.
The names date to the drafting of Puerto Rico’s local government constitution in 1952. After choosing the words that translate as Associated Free State, the drafters recognized that the U.S. Congress would not approve a constitution that named the government the Associated Free State of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico was not associated with the U.S.; the U.S. owned it. It was not free; it was a U.S. territory. And it was not a state in the U.S. or international constitutional senses of the word. (Internationally, a state is a nation.)
And Puerto Rico is not a freely associated state, as the term is used in either U.S. or international law. A freely associated state is a nation that voluntarily associates with another nation, letting the other exercise some of its sovereign powers on the condition that it can unilaterally reclaim the powers.
The U.S. is in free association with three Pacific island nations that it formerly administered as parts of a territory: the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republics of the Marshall Islands and Palau.
Because of this, Puerto Rico’s constitutional convention passed a resolution to have the official name of Puerto Rico’s territorial government in English be the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico instead of the words in Spanish that mean Associated Free State of Puerto Rico.
Since most Puerto Ricans primarily speak Spanish, many have been misled into thinking that Puerto Rico is a state in free association with the U.S. Over the years, even many Federal officials have been confused by the name.
Making the matter more confusing, Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” party says that it wants a “commonwealth status.” There is no precedent for such a status.
Under the party’s proposal, Puerto Rico would not be a territory but not be a U.S. State or a nation. And the U.S. would be permanently bound to a specific governing arrangement for the islands.
Puerto Rico would have the powers to nullify the application of Federal laws and Federal court jurisdiction and to enter into international agreements and organizations as if it were a sovereign nation. The U.S. would be obligated to grant the insular government a new subsidy as well as to continue granting all current assistance to Puerto Ricans and U.S. citizenship.
The Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations rejected the proposal as impossible for constitutional and other reasons. President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status has written that Puerto Rico would remain subject to congressional Territory Clause governing authority under any “commonwealth” arrangement.