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The Two Meanings of “Commonwealth”

Although use of the term “commonwealth” to describe Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. has fallen out of favor in recent years, the label still has a few champions left, as evidenced by a recent opinion piece in El Nuevo Dia.

Referring to compromise Puerto Rico status legislation under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, author José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral wrote that “[a] compromise bill is being concocted for a Puerto Rico status referendum that would assure a statehood win by disqualifying the current Commonwealth status as an option.”

The “current Commonwealth” status?

The term “Commonwealth” has been used to describe Puerto Rico in two different ways:

The current status of Puerto Rico is quite clear: it is a territory of the United States.

“Commonwealth” is a word in the official name of the territory, but it has no legal meaning in the context of the United States.

“Perhaps in an effort to be polite,” Governor Pierlusi explained in a 2015 New York Times essay,  “certain commentators refer to Puerto Rico as a ‘commonwealth,’ implying that Puerto Rico has a special status. But this word has no practical meaning, as demonstrated by the fact that several states call themselves ‘commonwealths.’”

It is easy to see the popularity of a fantasy option.  But it’s hard to justify presenting such an option as a valid choice to the people of Puerto Rico – or anyone else.  After all, many voters who live in states would also prefer the benefits of a fantasy “commonwealth.”

Should “commonwealth” be on the ballot?

Given the dual definition of the “Commonwealth,”  should the term be an option for voters?

In support of his position that “commonwealth” should be put to a vote, Hernández Mayoral claims that a 2011 report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status stated that “Commonwealth” should be on a ballot offered to the people of Puerto Rico.

But the 2011 report  is explicit that ”[u]nder the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

It is this territorial definition of “commonwealth” that the 2011 Task Force report recommends including on a future plebiscite ballot.

“Commonwealth” status in the fantasy sense has been disqualified many times in all three branches of the federal government.   Even the 2011 Task Force report did so when it explained that at any time “a future Congress could choose to alter [a Commonwealth] relationship unilaterally.”

An outdated term

If the voters of Puerto Rico have the possibility of voting for the current status, then what should this option be called?

The definition of “territory” is clear.  The U.S. Constitution contains a Territory Clause. More than three million people are living that experience today.

The definition of “Commonwealth” is unclear and always morphing into something new and more desirable. The label has been rejected repeatedly by the federal government and misunderstood by voters.  The term is even used to define a state, like in Massachusetts.

The Constitution of Massachusetts uses the word “commonwealth,” in Article 4:

The people of this commonwealth have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves, as a free, sovereign, and independent state; and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not, or may not hereafter, be by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in Congress assembled.

Obviously, Massachusetts does not have a special relationship with the federal government, different from that of say, South Dakota. The use of the term “commonwealth” doesn’t mislead anyone into thinking otherwise.

However, the people of Puerto Rico have been misled by the term “commonwealth.” Many believe that Puerto Rico “is not a mere territory” and has a special compact with Congress. Then-Governor Garcia Padilla complained that the 2012 ballot did not include “commonwealth” even though it had a question on “the current territorial status.”  The continued use of the term encourages the confusion shown in Hernández Mayoral’s essay.

The “commonwealth” label has outlived its purpose. In 2022, it is important to be honest and straightforward with the people of Puerto Rico and not use labels with two different meanings, especially since one of them has been proven to be confusing and – apparently still – misleading.


Enhanced Commonwealth or Free Association?


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