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Puerto Rico’s Status: Who Should Decide?

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States that has not been incorporated into the country — even though it is treated like a State under most laws. Because it has not been made a permanent part of the United States, Puerto Rico can become a separate nation or a U.S. State. And, as a nation, it can either be completely independent of the United States or be in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to determine Puerto Rico’s political status.  Yet that has not stopped others from weighing in:

  • The President of the United States has already said he will abide by the clear will of the people of Puerto Rico, as many past presidents have done.
  • The Senate committee responsible for territories has stated that an “enhanced Commonwealth” option is essentially a non-starter, as it is not “viable” on legal, policy and constitutional grounds.
  • The Department of Justice has been given authority to determine which status options are possible under the U.S. Constitution, laws and policies.
  • The current government of Puerto Rico is working on a new “Commonwealth” option that can be accepted by the U.S. government. Governor Garcia Padilla has recently announced his intention to accept the terms of a federally sponsored plebiscite, after having previously favored a government assembly rather than a popular vote. Puerto Rico’s government certainly has a great deal of influence over the question and will be affected by the outcome; however, under the US Constitution, the federal government will have final say, as it did in the passage of the Puerto Rican “Commonwealth” Constitution and has throughout Puerto Rico’s history with the U.S.
  • The United Nations routinely calls on the United States government to resolve the status of Puerto Rico and end what many members of the U.N. consider its colonial status.
  • Representatives of other nations, including Cuba and Venezuela, similarly call for an end to Puerto Rico’s territorial status, often in favor of independence.  Although world opinion is considered in the discussion of Puerto Rico’s status, there is evidence that the issue affects America’s reputation.
  • The voters of Puerto Rico are generally held to be the decisionmakers on Puerto Rico’s status.  In 2012, close to 80% of eligible voters turned out for the the referendum, with roughly 54% rejecting the current territorial status and  61% of voters choosing a status option favoring statehood.
  • The U.S. diaspora, the Puerto Ricans who have come to the mainland, are often mentioned in discussions of who should vote for Puerto Rico’s status. Latino Rebels have discussed the question in depth. Other observers have pointed out that the Puerto Ricans who have left Puerto Rico — and they now outnumber those who have stayed — have already “voted with their feet” for statehood. Regardless of the ability of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the US to influence a Puerto Rican vote, the diaspora could play a role in reaching out to their elected officials in Congress, who must ultimately decide Puerto Rico’s status.
  • All people of the mainland United States will be affected by a decision to add another State to the Union and another star to the flag. All Americans are already affected by world opinion of the status of Puerto Rico and by the economic and social consequences of that status. Polling of U.S. citizens on the mainland have been limited, but the Wall Street Journal reported a clear majority (78%) in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico in a 2013 poll.

Who should be included in the conversation? Tell us in the comments.


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