Puerto Rico has been a possession of the United States since 1898 — that’s 121 years at this writing. Puerto Rico is not the only territory of the United States, but it is the only one with a large population and the only one that has voted for statehood.
No territory that has asked for statehood has been refused. It has sometimes taken years for Congress to accept territories’ requests, but 32 territories have become states before. Each state has a different story, but all of those territories are now states.
Puerto Rico voted for statehood in 2012 and in 2017. The 2017 vote was 97% in favor of statehood. So why is Puerto Rico not a state now?
There were anti-statehood forces in all the former territories, though by now they have been forgotten. Florida couldn’t agree on whether to be one state or two (some wanted three). Arkansas’s anti-statehood faction wanted to clear up the territory’s debt before becoming a state. Utah had to settle the question of polygamy before being admitted.
In Puerto Rico, there is a small independence movement.The independence option has never received more than 5% of the vote in any status referendum. No Independence Party candidate has ever been elected as governor or resident commissioner. The voters of Puerto Rico simply don’t want independence.
There is also an “enhanced commonwealth” contingency, which is decreasing in number, but claims that the United States will eventually agree to some hybrid nation-state plan which will give Puerto Rico “the best of both worlds.”
The federal government has repeatedly stated that the U.S. will never agree to this plan. Under the U.S. constitution, territory and state are the only legal options.
Still, while “commonwealth” proponents haven’t achieved a majority in a referendum this century, they have been able to create uncertainty or at least confusion about the will of Puerto Rico’s voters.
Forgetting the lessons of history
A century ago, the United States was in the business of adding states. Territories and their future prospects were in the news and often were major issues in presidential campaigns. Now, many Americans are confused about U.S. territories. Congress has been able to ignore Puerto Rico because their constituents were often unaware of the issues.
What’s more, a series of Supreme Court decisions called the Insular Cases made it legal for Congress to keep a territory indefinitely. Puerto Rico was never given a clear path to statehood as the older territories were.
Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory is a driving force behind the economic crisis that has plagued the Island. The weakness of the infrastructure, which made disaster response extremely difficult, would never have happened if Puerto Rico had the resources that all states enjoy.
Yet many commenters have said that Puerto Rico has to sort out its finances before becoming a state, that the territory’s debt must be paid back before Puerto Rico can be a state, or that Hurricane Maria’s cleanup must be completed before statehood can be considered.
Conditions like these have never been placed on territories in the past. It was understood that statehood could provide solutions for territories, and that adding a state was beneficial for the country.
The decision to make Puerto Rico a state is up to Congress. So far, Congress has chosen not to make the decision.