Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. It became a U.S. territory in 1898, when it was acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War.
With just over 3 million residents, Puerto Rico is the most highly populated of all United States territories. People who are born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.
The power of Congress over territories is exclusive and complete, as described under Article IV of the Constitution:
The Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.
A piece of land belonging to the United States can be only a territory or a state under U.S. law.
Why Is This Confusing?
Puerto Rico has been called many things over the years.
In federal laws, it’s been referred to as simply a “possession” of the U.S.
In 1952, when Puerto Rico created and U.S. Congress approved the “Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” people started calling Puerto Rico a “Commonwealth.” Over several decades this title grew to portray an arrangement reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory with all kinds of promised goodies for Puerto Rico that never actually materialized.
“Commonwealth” went out of fashion around 2016 when the United States Supreme Court let it be known in no uncertain terms that Congress still controlled who was getting the chocolate. The Court explained at the time that Puerto Rico is not on “equal footing” with the States and does not share in their “power, dignity and authority.” Seemingly on cue, Congress then passed legislation imposing a U.S. financial control board in Puerto Rico that today continues to exercise powers that exceed those of even the Puerto Rican Governor.
The Spanish name of Puerto Rico’s Constitution – “Constitución del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico” – once led to the claim that Puerto Rico is actually a State in Free Association with the U.S., a literal translation of this title, governed by an unalterable compact of free association, but no such compact has ever been signed. This characterization of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship gradually faded away.
More recently, people have started calling Puerto Rico a colony. In November of 2023, Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) recognized “more than one hundred years of colonial rule” by the U.S. in Puerto Rico, and said that the “status quo is unsustainable, unfair, and undignified.”
Given the lack of democratic rights in Puerto Rico, this label is accurate. It is also gaining traction in the public arena, but it is also, arguably, jarring.
So we are left with calling Puerto Rico a U.S. territory. Perhaps the label sounds too legalistic, but it is an accurate one. It also presents a clear picture of the current inequality and lack of democracy inherent in the United States-Puerto Rico’s relationship.