Many Americans continue to be confused about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. The Skimm says Puerto Rico is “like a college kid — kinda independent, kinda not.” Bloomberg says, “The political and economic relationship between U.S. territories and their neglectful overlords in Washington is a blueprint for continuing moral hazard.”
But the United States is really neither a parent nor an overlord. The U.S. owns Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. 32 of the current 50 states were once territories — land belonging to the United States but not part of a state. “Today,” Howard Hills writes in Citizens Without A State, “Puerto Rico remains our nation’s only geographically large and demographically populous territory, with a current condition of inequality and political disenfranchisement that has persisted for more than a hundred years.”
Puerto Rico belongs to the U.S., and the U.S. government can make different laws for territories than it does for States. States have rights under the constitution that territories do not. Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner from 2009 to 2017, explained, ” From a constitutional perspective, Puerto Rico belongs to the United States. The federal government has almost absolute power over Puerto Rico.”
Some people believe that Puerto Rico “is not a mere territory,” as former governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla put it. This idea of a different relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is often called “commonwealth” or “enhanced commonwealth.” While the idea has been imagined in a variety of different ways over time, it can broadly be described as a mixture of statehood and independence, with some elements of both. However, all three branches of the United States government have repeatedly rejected this idea for Constitutional and practical reasons, and confirmed that Puerto Rico is in fact a territory.
“Commonwealth” is part of the official name of Puerto Rico, as it is part of the official name of states like Kentucky and Maryland. In all these cases, the word has no legal meaning. The relationship of the Commonwealth of Kentucky with the United States is in no way different from the relationship of the state of Tennessee with the United States. The relationship of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico with the United States is in no way different from that of other unincorporated territories.
Puerto Rico has held multiple votes on its political status, and in two cases this “enhanced commonwealth” option has won the vote. Both times, Congress rejected the idea. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) explained, in 1998, “It was turned down overwhelming[ly] on a bipartisan basis. It was something called ‘enhanced commonwealth.’ It was sort of a make-believe status of commonwealth. ”
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said in 1994, “The people were presented a mythical commonwealth option which proposed significant changes to the current relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.” Read more statements on the subject.
The idea that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth and that a commonwealth is not the same as a territory may have gotten its start in 1952, when Puerto Rico developed a constitution. As far back as 1950, when the document was being drafted and discussed, a number of documents from the U.S. government made this statement: “The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico’s political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.” Read related historical statements.
This is still the position of the U.S. government, which has restated the position many, many times, most recently before the Supreme Court. Read more government statements confirming Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory.
It is interesting that some Puerto Rican leaders continue to reject the position of the U.S. government on this question, but it does not affect the legal relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. A territory cannot announce that it is no longer a territory, unless it is prepared to demand independence, which Puerto Rico has not done. Independence has been an option in each of the plebiscites on Puerto Rico’s status, and has never received more than 5% of the popular vote.
In the most recent referendum in 2020, 53% voted Yes on statehood. In 2017, 97% voted for statehood. In 2012, 61% of the votes favored statehood. But Puerto Rico cannot declare itself a State any more than it can declare itself an “enhanced commonwealth.” The power remains with Congress. And Congress has said quite clearly that Puerto Rico is, at the present writing, a territory.