Samantha Bee Presents “The Great American Puerto Rico” and Political Status

Last week, Samantha Bee presented a special edition of her program Full Frontal, The Great American Puerto Rico.

She took her team to Puerto Rico to see firsthand how recovery is going, and served up a combination of depressing facts and cheery footage of people taking action to rebuild.  She also discussed Puerto Rico’s political status,

“It’s technically a commonwealth of the United States,” Bee says. But there is no such thing as a commonwealth of the United States.That is, “commonwealth” has no legal meaning in the United States. Kentucky is a commonwealth, Massachusetts is a commonwealth, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth — it really just means that the state or territory uses the word “commonwealth” in its title.

Much of the segment is taken up with legislators obligingly joking about what they would do to get Congress to resolve Puerto Rico’s status. The statehood party representative offers to pay for a juggler to entertain Congress on Tuesday afternoons.

This may be more entertaining that explaining the implications of independence, statehood, free association, and territorial status, but viewers won’t have any greater clarity about status after watching.

Four political status options were presented with little detail in the short segment.  Those options are:

  • Independence. Puerto Rico has a right to choose to be an independent nation, although this option has never received more than five per cent of the vote in any plebiscite. An Independence Party candidate has never won election as a governor. Puerto Rico is not actually asking Congress for independence, and Congress has never seriously considered forcing the territory to become independent.
  • Free association. Puerto Rico could negotiate a treaty with the United States as an independent nation and then create a close relationship with the U.S. under the title of “freely associated state.”  Either Puerto Rico or the United States could terminate the treaty. Free Associated States (FAS) exist in the Pacific today; created after World War II for their strategic value.  FAS Residents are not U.S. citizens.  They receive minimal financial assistance from the U.S., and are completely dependent upon the U.S. military, which can have a significant presence in the FAS with little input from the local community in locations such as Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
  • Commonwealth or territorial status. Some members of the “commonwealth” party don’t believe that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United State, but that’s the reality. The United States owns Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. The Supreme Court reaffirmed this fact in 2016.
  • Statehood. Puerto Rico has officially requested statehood following two votes favoring statehood. 32 U.S. territories have already become states, and Congress never permanently refused statehood to any territory, though it has sometimes taken quite a bit of work to get Congress to respond to such requests.

The Samantha Bee special opened up discussion on the question of Puerto Rico’s status increased awareness of Puerto Rico’s plight six months after the devastation of Hurricanes Maria and Irma.  Bee seemed to express genuine interest in the island territory, leaving open the possible of additional coverage in the future.

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