After decades of debate, Puerto Rico is now recognized for what it is: a U.S. territory, or to put it less gently, a colony. Puerto Rico, home to more than three million U.S. citizens, has no U.S. Senators, no voting members in the U.S. House of Representatives, and no vote in presidential elections. Given this undemocratic situation, an increasing number of people are calling for change. The question is, what will that change be? Puerto Rico’s next step must realistically be one of two possibilities.
What are Puerto Rico’s choices?
Puerto Rico could become a sovereign country, like the members of the United Nations. Citizens of foreign countries are not categorically U.S. citizens, and citizens of a new sovereign nation of Puerto Rico could not expect to be U.S. citizens either.
Just as the people of the Philippines lost their status as U.S. nationals when they gained independence, Puerto Ricans can expect their status as U.S. citizens to be questioned and possibly jeopardized if they opted to be citizens of a new nation of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico could also become a state like the current 50 states, each with its own culture and history. Each state uses English in its federal courts, as Puerto Rico does today, but there are many people in every state who are multilingual, including large communities of Spanish speakers in states like California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois.
Nationhood or Statehood?
Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship but no seat at the United Nations. Could Puerto Rico get a seat at that table? As a sovereign nation, it would. Even small Pacific island nations such as the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands – the U.S.-affiliated freely associated states – have that representation. But they do not have U.S. citizenship. They are sovereign nations.
Increases in Puerto Rican sovereignty by definition weaken ties with the United States. After all, a nation of Puerto Rico would no longer be subject to U.S. law.
Some thought leaders have suggested declaring Puerto Rico a sovereign country while also keeping U.S. citizenship for broad swaths of the new nation’s citizenry. Congress has never promised this or even suggested it as a viable option. In fact, the House of Representatives was clear in legislation passed in December that citizenship can be “recognized, protected, and secure” under statehood but not if Puerto Rico were to become a sovereign nation.
Of course, becoming a state makes it clear that there is no United Nations seat on the horizon. States of the United States do not have their own representation in the United Nations. On the other hand, the U.S. Constitution explicitly guarantees U.S. citizenship to individuals born in U.S. states.
Puerto Rico’s next step – when there is a next step – must be towards nationhood or statehood. No other model exists.
The debate over Puerto Rico’s ultimate status has gone on for decades. Without recognition of the current limits – that the island’s options are statehood or nationhood, but not a combination of both – the debate could continue for decades more.