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“The Commonwealth”: Does It Matter What We Call It?

The big news lately out of Puerto Rico has often been about sports. It’s exciting to follow Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, seeing powerful nations go down before a tiny territory.

But Puerto Rico is rarely identified as a territory. In this article, this one, and many more, Puerto Rico is called “the commonwealth.”

This is not incorrect. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth just as Kentucky is. Yet we don’t see articles about Kentucky sports referring to the state as “the commonwealth.” The implication is that Puerto Rico’s status is somehow special, that a commonwealth is a special kind of political entity or a special relationship between nations, perhaps similar to the relationship of Australia and the UK.

In fact, Puerto Rico’s use of “commonwealth” refers only to a title it took in 1952, and it is a commonwealth only in the sense that Kentucky is.

“Commonwealth” sounds better than “colony,” and perhaps it even sounds better than “territory.” Yet the United States government has repeatedly made it clear that Puerto Rico is a territory. As Puerto Rico, lacking the rights and support that states receive, falls deeper into financial trouble, winning the WBC may cheer people up. It won’t help Puerto Rico solve the problems its territorial status creates.

Should we expect articles about baseball to clarify the political position of Puerto Rico? Perhaps not. But when the excitement over this sports story is past and the next sports story comes up, Puerto Rico will still have limited representation in Congress. It will still be a largely unguarded border, the easiest entry point into the U.S. for drugs and therefore the victim of enormous levels of drug-related violence. It will still face hardships unimaginable in states — including the non-mainland states of Alaska and Hawaii, both of which have seen greater prosperity after gaining statehood.

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