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Misunderstanding over “Commonwealth” Continues

While Congress is in its August recess, with House Members back home in their districts and preparing for November elections, the Puerto Rico Status Act (HR 8393) remains pending before Congress.

The controversial proposal, led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), calls for a vote in Puerto Rico on the Island’s political status.

One of the most contentious points of the bill is that it proposes a ballot structure for Puerto Rico’s next plebiscite that offers a choice among only non-territorial options, eliminating “commonwealth” as an option on the ballot.

What is commonwealth?

Commonwealth” has no real meaning in the United States, where several states and Puerto Rico use the term in the official names of their states and territories.

Historically, some Puerto Rican political leaders have claimed that the “commonwealth” represents an agreement between the United States and Puerto Rico that was finalized in the form of Puerto Rico’s 1952 Constitution.  Yet historic records are clear that the Puerto Rico Constitution did not change Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory.  In fact,the U.S. Congress approved Puerto Rico’s Constitution only after Puerto Rico made changes that Congress had insisted upon, demonstrating that Puerto Rico lacked authority vis-a-vis the U.S. right from the get-go.

Yet the myths persist.  Just last month, the San Juan Star wrote about a celebration of “the 70th birthday of the commonwealth.” In the article, the Star reported that a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate which would “include the commonwealth as an option.” This bill would in fact include “reaffirmation” of the current status – which is a territory. 

A new report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) summarizes the points of view on “commonwealth,” saying, “Debate over significance of the ‘commonwealth’ term notwithstanding, action by Congress would be necessary to alter Puerto Rico’s political status. Doing so, of course, would require passage of legislation by Congress and approval by the President.” That is, Puerto Rico remains a territory belonging to the United States until that is changed by Congress.

The Two Meanings of “Commonwealth”

Loss of “commonwealth” believers in Congress

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) has a long history of support for the idea of an “enhanced commonwealth.”  In the past, she had argued that Puerto Rico has a “bilateral compact” with the United States.

At a 2022 hearing in San Juan, she gave “commonwealth” proponents a chance to make their case: “We welcome those who favor the ‘enhancement’ of the Commonwealth that is not territorial and not colonial, and that they present that option to us. We are here to listen to those who tell us what the option of a non-territorial, non-colonial Commonwealth is.”

Despite this opening, “commonwealth” supporters were unsuccessful in convincing House drafters to include their option.
The new Puerto Rico Status Act offers the voters of Puerto Rico a chance to choose among non-territorial options, and only among those which are actually viable under the U.S. Constitution. Given the history of confusion over the “commonwealth” label, the pending proposal represents newfound clarity and a possible path forward from Puerto Rico’s current undemocratic status.

Celebrating 68 Years of Commonwealth…and Confusion

And Yet More Confusion over “Commonwealth”: Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite History

3 thoughts on “Misunderstanding over “Commonwealth” Continues”

  1. Pingback: Misunderstanding over “Commonwealth” Continues | Turtles Egg News

  2. This is a shining example that if Puerto Rico does not opt for either STATEHOOD or INDEPENDENCE they will ALWAYS be SLAVES to do as directed by the United States. The people should be reminded that they are U.S. Citizens only because the U.S. allows it and, sadly, they can revoke that right at any time. If you want to be a naturalized citizen of the U.S. you MUST BE BORN IN THE U.S. or BOTH of your parents must be naturalized U.S. citizens. Young couples and expecting mothers should be aware of that fact.

    1. With all due respect, the information you provided is not correct. I was not born in the US and neither of my parents were US born or US citizens, yet I am a naturalized US citizen. I think there is a different terminology used for US born citizens and also a different terminology used for the people of Puerto who, as you pointed out, were given citizenship in 1917 by an act of Congress and signed by President Wilson. I do agree, Puerto Ricans should know this and understand that their citizenship can be taken away just like mine can probably be taken away.
      I can dig out the paper that addresses the various citizenship and post a link or title if you are interested.
      In 1917 most Puerto Ricans wanted independence but it was wartime and the US wanted to make sure that Puerto Rico doesn’t get into the hands of Germany. Since then many Puerto Ricans have served in the armed forces and have split families, some living in the US, some living in Puerto Rico. I believe those are the main reasons why they want to maintain the duality. While independence would cut around 5 million Puerto Ricans off who live in the US, about half of the population of the island doesn’t want stetehood. The last two plebiscites were heavily skewed. One was boycotted and the last one was done during covid. Yet, the statehood advocates want to run with it. It is no wonder why the bill lost supporters.

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