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Is Puerto Rico a Country?

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.  Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. You don’t need a passport to fly to Puerto Rico from anywhere within the United States. The island is located within U.S. borders and uses U.S. currency.  Puerto Ricans have among the highest level of U.S. military service in the country.

Yet many people believe that Puerto Rico is a foreign country.  It’s not.  In a striking example, an expert witness recently had this to say about Puerto Rico when testifying before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee:

“[L]ook at what’s happened in Greece. You know, look at what Greece has to — the rates of interest they have to — they have to pay to borrow. You know, they’re in the double digits. And another country, look at Puerto Rico for goodness sakes. I mean, they’ve racked up so much debt that that country is coming running to Washington to get a bailout.”  (See 2:25:15 in the hearing video.)

The country of Puerto Rico?

Unfortunately, this credentialed witness providing expert advice to U.S. Senators serving on the Judiciary Committee is not alone.  Many people make the same mistake.  

Puerto Rico is a territory

Puerto Rico is not a country but a U.S. territory.  With 3.4 million U.S. citizens living there, Puerto Rico is the most populated of the five U.S. territories, which also include Guam, American Samoa, the United States Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands.  U.S. citizens residing in these territories cannot vote for President, have no U.S. Senate representation, and are represented by a single member in the House of Representatives with no voting power.

Puerto Rico is sometimes referred to as a possession of the United States.  It is also called a colony.  People frequently call Puerto Rico a “Commonwealth,” implying that Puerto Rico has a special status, but this word has no practical meaning.  Several U.S. states also call themselves “commonwealths.”

Feeling like a nation

Perhaps the confusion over Puerto Rico’s political status stems from the fact that Puerto Rico has sent athletes to the Olympics — sometimes playing for the U.S. and other times representing only Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has also sent contestants to the Miss Universe pageant, and they have won five times so far. Yet special recognition by Olympic and pageant committees does not make Puerto Rico an independent country.

An independent nation can negotiate treaties and trade deals with other countries, which Puerto Rico cannot. The Supreme Court has recently confirmed that Puerto Rico has no sovereignty.

Further, the U.S. does not grant U.S. citizenship to citizens of foreign countries. Not even the three sovereign entities that have Compacts of Free Association with the United States – the Republics of Palau and Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia – can provide U.S. citizenship to their citizens.

Sometimes the term “nation” is used to describe a culture without sovereignty. Penn State, for example, defines “nation” in this way: “Nations in some ways can be thought of as ‘imagined communities’ that are bound together by notions of unity that can pivot around religion, ethnic identity, language, cultural practice and so forth.”

Puerto Rico might be a nation in this sense. However, it is not a country.

Updated December 2021.

9 thoughts on “Is Puerto Rico a Country?”

  1. Its very confused status.Has been a debate issue for years. The only way to straight it out is to change the actual status to independence or statehood.Now is the time to get it done.State 51.!

  2. All United States citizens are Americans. Why? Because that’s what the word “Americans” means to nearly everybody on our planet when referring to U.S. citizens. Natives of Puerto Rico, unfortunately, have been subjected for the past century to contradictory anti-statehood indoctrination from many of that territory’s most influential individuals and institutions. Passionately promoted propaganda perennially stresses the specious claim that a person can be a Puerto Rican OR an American, but never both. This nonsense has inculcated virtually the entire territorial population and has likewise been widely circulated on the mainland. Consequently, it’s hardly surprising that a careless, insensitive klutz like Mr. Moore would fall into the “country” trap – after all, literally millions of Puerto Rico’s own residents routinely (and ignorantly) refer to Puerto Rico as their “country” (or “país,” in Spanish).

    1. Guess what? there are 23 countries in the North America Continent. That makes everyone who lives in these countries as american as anyone in USA. By the way that is United States “of america” Maybe all these countries should put that at the end of their country name. Like
      Canada of America, or Mexico of America, and so on.
      Its just a thought. :))

      1. RESPONSE TO CHEO: In Portuguese, the official name of a prominent Western Hemisphere nation is the “United States of Brazil”; in Spanish, the official name of a prominent Western Hemisphere nation is “United Mexican States”; the people of Brazil are universally known as “Brazilians”; the people of Mexico are universally known as “Mexicans”; and the people of the “United States of America” are universally known
        as “Americans”!!! IT’S NOT ABOUT GEOGRAPHY, Cheo. And “Oh, by the way”: I defy you to NAME your “23 countries in the North America Continent.” Are you counting Caribbean islands that are situated BETWEEN the TWO American [not “America”] continents [uncapitalized and plural]???

      2. Cheo, can you tell me what those 23 country’s in North America are? I beleive there are only 3. Canada, United States, Mexico and Central America. Now South America has several country’s on the same continent. They have 13.

  3. Well the status is “Confusing” and the people of Puerto Rico are “Confused” about their Latino heritage and since the islands will not change its language to English – The congress should pass a bill to grant them independence. The people of the United States will not accept a non-English speaking nation as the 51st state. Before we even consider the island as a state, we should make DC a state. PR Should be granted Independence. I been there on vacation and they won’t nor cant assimilate to American values. This is evident on how they drive (like animals), how the working force works (they r extremely slow and lazy), they like freebies (statehood is a form of them trying to get more funds out of the USA). If you ask an islander why not independence they will say “Hell NO, I’ll lose my food stamps or Social Security or Medicare… It’s all about “Give me more USA”. We need to once and for all set them free weather or not they want it. End of point.

    1. Mark, it is so obvious that you are an ignorant with respect to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. Nobody invited the USA to invade PR in 1898. They took the island from Spain and declared ownership through the Treaty of Paris. If the US has stayed there for over 100 years it is because they are getting something out of it. Believe me the USA doesn’t give anything for free. The same way the USA invaded the island in 1898 they can leave easily, but decided to stay all these years.
      About your comment that Puerto Ricans are lazy,it tells a lot about your ignorance. Go back to school before you make stupid comments like that.

    2. Mark, I have put into Social Security all my working years. That is mine. I have Medicare which is the medical part of retirement. I will agree in one thing with you. They can’t drive safe. They don’t move to the side of the street when an ambulance, fire truck or police car have their sirens on.. They have NO clue its an emergency. Animals is a strong work for drivers because animal don’t drive. They are crazy divers and many don’t even have a drivers license.

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