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Tommy Ramos and the Olympic Games

Puerto Rico is proud of Tommy Ramos, a Bayamon-born gymnast who has qualified for the Olympic men’s gymnastics rings final to be held on August 6th in London.

As a native-born Puerto Rican, Tommy Ramos is a U.S. citizen.  He could have participated in the Olympics as a member of the U.S. team.  Had he done so, he would have been the top qualifier in the rings trial for the United States, just as he was for Puerto Rico.

There are many reasons why Ramos may have chosen to compete on behalf of Puerto Rico instead of the U.S. team.  The support back home is certainly passionate.  Not every Olympic athlete has the option of playing on two teams; certainly Ramos’s choice was one that most residents of the fifty states simply don’t have.

Is there a downside to Puerto Rico’s Olympics team?

Yet the question must be asked:  Is there a downside to Puerto Rico having its own Olympic team?  More broadly, are there drawbacks for Puerto Rico, as a territory, being treated differently from the fifty states?  After all, the federal U.S. government has never stopped Puerto Rico or its other territories from competing in the Olympics or even in a beauty pageant – historic sources of pride for the idyllic Island.

But the U.S. federal government could end Puerto Rico’s Olympic participation because it is a territory.  This power is explicit under the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”  Even though Congress has statutorily provided Puerto Rico with local independence and autonomy, Congress could pass another law or otherwise claim its Constitutional power to govern Puerto Rico.

This power may seem hard to believe,  but it is well established.  In fact, Secretary of State Colin Powell relied on the Constitution’s Territory Clause in 2003 when members of Puerto Rico’s ruling Commonwealth Party (also known as the Popular Democratic Party or PDP) contacted numerous Caribbean countries in an attempt to conduct international diplomacy.  In a memorandum to the Belize Embassy, Secretary Powell forcefully explained:

The Department is aware that Puerto Rican government officials have approached a number of countries . . . seeking treatment normally only accorded to a sovereign state. . . . The department reiterates that the U.S. federal government is responsible for Puerto Rico’s foreign affairs.

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States with commonwealth status.  The U.S. federal government has full responsibility for the conduct of foreign relations of all areas subject to United States jurisdiction, including all U.S. states, territories, and possessions.  Accordingly, the Department reviews any proposed participation by a U.S. territory or possession in international bodies, or signing of documents (including agreements) with other nations [.]

Fortunately for Puerto Rican Olympic enthusiasts, Congress is unlikely to end the territory’s Olympic participation any time soon.  So why can’t Puerto Rico have its own special Olympic team and celebrate its uniqueness?  What would be the harm?

Territory status

Puerto Rico’s Olympic team exists because of its status as a territory, and no one wants Puerto Rico to be a territory.  People may wish for Puerto Rico to be an “enhanced” territory, often referred to as a “Commonwealth,” but past plebiscites have demonstrated that voters do not want to live in a territory with second class U.S. citizenship.  For every Olympic athlete, there are many more Puerto Ricans who fight to promote democracy abroad as members of the U.S. military while lacking the right to vote for their Commander-in-Chief.   Puerto Rico does not have full representation in Washington, and this lack of representation has consequences.  The territory is inadvertently left out of legislation and purposefully excluded from federal laws that directly impact it.  Returning veterans to Puerto Rico are denied access to the same level of health care given to their fellow soldiers in the fifty states. There are national laws and policies that could help Puerto Rico’s economy and security, but as a territory Puerto Rico has no access to them.  It’s sole, non-voting Resident Commissioner cannot do the work of the six Members of Congress and two Senators Puerto Rico would have as a state.

Penn State is also proud of Tommy Ramos, who is an alumnus of the school.  A six-time All-American, Ramos is credited with helping Penn State achieve its NCAA-record setting 12th national championship in 2007 and Big Ten title in 2008.

The word “Commonwealth” has caused a great deal of confusion.  The state where Ramos went to college – Pennsylvania – is also called a Commonwealth.  But its legal status is that of a state.  It will have 20 electoral votes in the upcoming Presidential election and all the national attention that flows from this influence.  Puerto Rico is also referred to as a Commonwealth, but its legal status is that of a territory.  It has no electoral votes.

As a Pennsylvanian, Ramos could not participate in a Pennsylvanian Olympic team.  As a Puerto Rican, he can participate in a Puerto Rican team.  But he is not a full participant in his country’s proud democratic tradition, which is now on display for the world to see.

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