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Puerto Rico: Commonwealth or Territory?

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.  It has been a U.S. territory since 1898, when it was acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War.

The Supreme Court has affirmed Puerto Rico’s status as a territory.  Presidents, senior administration officials in successive Republican and Democratic administrations, authoritative sources such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and Government Accountability Office (GAO), and Congress itself have consistently and repeatedly confirmed that Puerto Rico is a United States territory.

Why is the territory of Puerto Rico sometimes referred to as a “Commonwealth”?  The answer to this question can be found in the title of the Puerto Rican Constitution as enacted in 1952: The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  Some people claim that upon enactment of this constitution, Puerto Rico transcended from its territorial status into something new called a commonwealth status. History is clear, however, that regardless of the label affixed to the title of its constitution, Puerto Rico remains a territory.

The approval process of the Puerto Rican constitution itself is a prime example of Puerto Rico’s limited power under Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “Territory Clause:” “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

In fact, Puerto Rico did not adopt a local constitution until Congress authorized it and directed how it should be done.  In Committee reports, Congress was explicit in its intent to grant Puerto Rico authority only to organize a local government, with no changes to “Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relations to the United States.”  Congress exerted ultimate control over the new constitution, conditioning final approval on Puerto Rico making explicit changes to its initial proposal.  Puerto Rico quickly made those changes.  As a U.S. territory, it lacked the power to do anything else.

Read more and see a full list of references on this subject.

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