A travel expert has described Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States as “a unique social, economic, and political compromise.” Evidence for the specialness of the relationship? “For example,” this travel expert notes, “bookstores in the U.S. put travel guides to Puerto Rico in their ‘International Travel’ section rather than ‘Domestic Travel,’ where it belongs.”
It’s quite possible that there are bookstores where the staff misfile books on Puerto Rico under “International Travel” just as there are bookstores where they misfile books on Mexico under “South America.” This is not a reflection of unique compromises, but a reflection of the fact that many Americans are confused about the fact that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.
Far from being unique, territorial status is exactly what the majority of States had before they became States. The Supreme Court said in 1879 that any land belonging to the United States and which is “not included in any State must necessarily be governed by or under the authority of Congress.” This finding has been confirmed repeatedly with regard to Puerto Rico. The 2007 report of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico contains this Supreme Court statement explicitly.
Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, legally and politically, is simple. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, a piece of land belonging to the U.S. and under the control of Congress.
There are things that are complicated about the Puerto Rico – U.S. relationship, but current legal status is not one of them.
Why are Americans confused about this simple fact?
- Limited education about Puerto Rico, since it doesn’t fit into the state-mandated 50 States unit. Current regulations governing k-12 education in the U.S. leave little space for things that are not mandated.
- The unusual nature of Puerto Rico’s status as an “unincorporated territory,” which allows Congress to leave Puerto Rico in the status of a territory indefinitely.
- Possibly intentional confusion about the status of Puerto Rico in the statements of the current government of Puerto Rico. A single example among many is the governor’s recent claim that he needs to “move the country forward.” Puerto Rico is not a country.
And this brings us back to the article quoted at the beginning of this post. “Is Puerto Rico a U.S. State?” the author asks. Here’s his answer:
“No, Puerto Rico is not a state, but rather a Commonwealth of the United States. This status provides local autonomy to the island and allows Puerto Rico to publicly display its flag.”
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth in the sense that Kentucky is a commonwealth; that is, the name of the territory and the state both contain the word “commonwealth.” This has absolutely nothing to do with Puerto Rico’s permission to display the flag.
Puerto Rico has local autonomy to exactly the extent that Congress allows it, as provided for in federal legislation from 1952, and is not protected by the rights that States have in the U.S. Constitution.
The article poses another question, “In What Way Is Puerto Rico ‘American’?”and answers it:
The simplest answer is that it is at the end of the day U.S. territory and its people are U.S. citizens.
These things are also true at the beginning of the day. Continuing to behave as though Puerto Rico has some special and complex relationship with the U.S. confuses people because it simply isn’t true.