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Is Puerto Rico America’s Forgotten Colony?

In their Foreign Affairs essay, “The forgotten colony of the United States,” Antonio Weiss and Brad Setser explain how Puerto Rico’s “perpetual crisis” is a result of its colonial status.

“Since 1898, when Washington took possession of it at the end of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico has been neither granted sovereignty nor fully integrated into the United States,” they point out. “Instead, it has remained an ‘unincorporated territory,’ a place that is simultaneously a part of, yet apart from, the rest of the country.”

As a territory, Puerto Rico has one non-voting member in Congress and no senators, and residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections. “Without any say in the federal policies that govern it,” the authors say, “Puerto Rico has for decades been neglected by Washington.”

As evidence for Washington’s lack of concern for Puerto Rico, the authors note:

  • The territory has been in a state of economic crisis for years, as evidenced by a drop in economic output of 14% between 2004 and 2017. This, the authors say, would be one of the worst declines in the world if Puerto Rico were an independent nation compared with other nations.
  • The poverty rate in Puerto Rico, at 45% and 56% for children, is twice that of the poorest State, Mississippi.
  • The territory’s residents don’t have the same safety net and benefits that they would have if they lived in a State. The disparities include tax credits, medical care, nutrition assistance and more; estimates suggest that the Island could receive as much as $5.4 billion each year in additional benefits if it were a State.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rico’s residents have left the territory to live in a State.
  • Through multiple Democratic and Republican administrations, no change has been made in Puerto Rico’s status,in spite of extensive discussion.
  • Puerto Rico’s economy has been deeply affected by federal policies and decisions which are not based on the best outcome for Puerto Rico.

The Island’s government has made mistakes, the authors say, but the federal policies affecting Puerto Rico have had the largest effect — and sometimes have pushed the local government into bad decisions.

Beyond the practical issues, the authors believe that there is a moral aspect of the status question that can no longer be ignored. “The United States’ continued economic and political neglect of the island is a stain on the country’s moral authority,” they write. “For the United States to remain a voice for democracy and self-determination on the international stage, it must end its unjust colonial relationship with Puerto Rico and the damaging purgatory that the island’s current status represents.”


The authors state that the first priority for Puerto Rico and the federal government should be to reduce Puerto Rico’s debt. A restructuring process began in 2016, but so far has not brought the territory’s indebtedness down to a manageable level.

Second, Puerto Rico must gain access to federal funds to rebuild from the 2017 hurricane season. The electrical grid and other damaged infrastructure must be built to modern standards, the authors emphasize. Disaster relief funds should not be used to pay down debt.

The authors next say that Puerto Rico must improve the business climate and stimulate the economy with policies like refundable tax credits rather than continuing austerity measures.

These steps must be taken, the authors insist, but they cannot be a replacement for resolution of the Island’s political status.

“The immediate economic crisis must be addressed through an ambitious program to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt, rebuild its infrastructure, and revitalize its economy,” the essay continues. “But the path forward will be sustainable only if the island’s political status is finally resolved.”

Status resolution

The authors favor another plebiscite allowing residents to vote on status options. This time, they say, it should be clear what the options mean to both the federal and the local governments, and there should be a commitment to take action.

Previous referenda have resulted in no action on the part of Congress.

The authors list three possible status options:

  • Independence, though the authors acknowledge that this is not a popular option among Puerto Ricans. “Full independence would come at a cost,” they say, “as Puerto Rico receives substantial economic benefits from being part of the United States. Before any referendum, the federal government and Puerto Rico would have to agree on how independence would be carried out, including a realistic timeline, a plan to replace or maintain the functions currently carried out by the federal government, and clarity about how the federal benefits that currently flow to Puerto Rican residents would be funded during the transition and maintained by the Puerto Rican government after independence.”
  • Statehood. The authors suggest that Washington should decide whether the federal government would accept Puerto Rico as a state before any further vote on statehood is taken. “Puerto Rico would immediately become the 30th-largest state by population, with two senators and perhaps five representatives. Statehood would also give Puerto Rican residents access to full federal benefits, including the EITC, Medicaid, and Medicare,” the authors point out. They also detail the need for decisions about taxation.
  • The current territorial status but with expanded rights. This could include a constitutional amendment which “should enshrine Puerto Rican residents’ equal status as American citizens with specific rights to self government, voting representation in presidential elections, and equal treatment in social safety net programs.”

“At its core,” the authors conclude, “status is a question of ideology and identity. Resolving Puerto Rico’s status is not an alternative to restructuring its debt or revitalizing its economy. It is, however, a critical step in allowing Puerto Rico to chart a sustainable long-term economic course. And for the United States, which has ruled Puerto Rico as a colony for over a century, giving the people of Puerto Rico the chance to decide their own future is not only a wise policy decision— it is, for a country that prides itself as the leader of the free world, a moral imperative.”

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