In a recent opinion piece in El Nueva Dia, Antonio Quiñones Calderón offered readers a quiz to help discern whether Puerto Rico is a colony. Noting an old theory that the approval of the 1952 constitution propelled the island from its colonial status, Quiñones provides a list of political and legal decisions issued since that year to enable readers to decide for themselves whether these facts provide conclusive evidence of the current colonial condition of the territory. So of his points follow below:
Congress and the Puerto Rico Constitution
Puerto Rico created its own constitution in 1950. Congress approved the document in 1952 — except for Section 20, which was a bill of rights. That section, as contained in the original Constitution, stated:
Section 20. The Commonwealth also recognizes the existence of the following human rights:
The right of every person to receive free elementary and secondary education.
The right of every person to obtain work.
The right of every person to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and especially to food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.
The right of every person to social protection in the event of unemployment, sickness, old age or disability.
The right of motherhood and childhood to special care and assistance.
The rights set forth in this section are closely connected with the progressive development of the economy of the Commonwealth and require, for their full effectiveness, sufficient resources and an agricultural and industrial development not yet attained by the Puerto Rican community.
In the light of their duty to achieve the full liberty of the citizen, the people and the government of Puerto Rico shall do everything in their power to promote the greatest possible expansion of the system of production, to assure the fairest distribution of economic output, and to obtain the maximum understanding between individual initiative and collective cooperation. The executive and judicial branches shall bear in mind this duty and shall construe the laws that tend to fulfill it in the most favorable manner possible.
It is unclear at this point why Congress refused to approve this language, but that’s what happened. Today,the Constitution is typically written and shared with this language intact, but with an asterisk that states: “By Resolution number 34, approved by the Constitutional Convention and ratified in the Referendum held on November 4, 1962, section 20 of article II was eliminated.” The section was ultimately removed, and Congress approved a Puerto Rico Constitution that lacks this bill of rights.
Congress made decisions about the constitutions of other territories in the past, including those of Utah and New Mexico. Congress has the power to do so under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which provides the U.S. government with “[p]ower to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”
Quiñones also pointed out that the establishment of the PROMESA Oversight board contravenes the Puerto Rico constitution by giving the board decision-making powers which the constitution gives to the territorial government.
Supreme Court on sovereignty
The Supreme Court has repeatedly decided that Puerto Rico is not sovereign, and is under the rule of Congress. The cases listed include Harris v. Rosario, Sánchez Valle, and Vaello Madero. In each case, the court determined that Congress has plenary powers over Puerto Rico, including the ability to overrule decisions made by the territorial government.
This case law also states that Congress may treat Puerto Rico differently from the states, and is not required to deliver equal rights to the people of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s treaties
Quiñones also listed several occasions when Puerto Rico attempted to make agreements with foreign governments but was prevented from doing so by the federal government. He notes that a Puerto Rican deal with Japan was once denied because “[t]he United States is internationally responsible for Puerto Rico,” and that in 2003 U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell intervened when Puerto Rico government attempted to create bilateral deals with Caribbean nations, reminding Belize specifically embassies that “Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.”
President’s Task Force reports
There have been several White House Task Forces on Puerto Rico. Reports issued by both Democratic and Republican Presidents made it abundantly clear that Congress has plenary power over Puerto Rico as a territory. Among many examples of this position is the statement that “[T]he Supreme court, while recognizing that Puerto Rico exercises substantial political autonomy under the current commonwealth system, has held that Puerto Rico remains fully subject to congressional authority under the Territory clause.” This comes from the 2007 report, but similar statements can be found in each of the reports.
The article concludes with the question, “Is Puerto Rico a colony? Yes or no?” The author does not provide an explicit answer, but his conclusion is inescapable.
Updated on January 8, 2024.