Located about a thousand miles southeast of Florida, Puerto Rico is a Caribbean archipelago with a complex colonial history and political status. As a territory of the United States, the 3.2 million people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. However, despite being subject to US federal laws, island-based Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections and are not represented in Congress. As American territory, it is neither a state nor an independent country.
When Christopher Columbus landed on the west coast of Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493, the native Taínos inhabited the land, which they called Borikén. The explorer quickly claimed the island for Spain and renamed it San Juan Bautista. For 400 years, Puerto Rico was under Spanish colonial rule. During this time, the island has experienced extreme levels of poverty, repression and taxation.
In the middle of the 19th century, tired Puerto Ricans began to revolt. In 1868, hundreds of independentist Puerto Ricans attempted an uprising in the mountain town of Lares. As the Spanish military quelled the rebellion, it marked a turning point for the island. National political parties were born, slavery was abolished, and Spain began to grant some autonomy to Puerto Rico.
But decades of relative sovereignty ended in 1898, when the United States declared war on Spain. On July 25, 1898, American troops invaded Puerto Rico and occupied it during the months of the Spanish-American War. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in December, ending the war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States.
Become an American territory
Under the United States, a military government was established and it ruled the territory until April 12, 1900, when a civilian government was created under the Foraker Act. Prior to the 20th century, the U.S. government granted state status to lands it acquired as it extended primarily west and south across the Americas. However, Puerto Rico has been designated an “unorganized territory”.
According to Christina D. Ponsa-Kraus, professor of legal history at Columbia Law School, some American lawmakers feared racial mixing would occur between white Americans in the contiguous United States and black and brown Puerto Ricans if Puerto Rico was admitted as a state. Puerto Ricans were limited to limited autonomy – under the direction of a governor appointed by the United States – and did not have U.S. citizenship.
The island’s independence movements continued to demand autonomy. To ease tensions, in 1917 the United States passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted most Puerto Ricans American citizenship, but with limitations. By law, a Senate and a Bill of Rights were established; however, the President and Congress of the United States still had the power to veto Puerto Rican laws. The Selective Service Act, meanwhile, required men in the United States, including Puerto Rico, to register for military service. During World War I, nearly 20,000 Puerto Rican men fought for the United States.
More than three decades later, in 1950, the United States allowed Puerto Rico to draft a constitution, as long as it did not change its territorial status and establish a republican form of government and a bill of rights. After the Puerto Rican legislature held a constitutional convention to draft the constitution, it was approved by the President and Congress in 1952. Under the new constitution, Puerto Rico was designated the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Commonwealth vs. Associated Free State
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Decades after the adoption of the Commonwealth Statute, confusion persists around the meaning of the classification. Early adopters believed the designation would give Puerto Rico special legal status that was not an independent state, country or territory. They assumed that because the island had an elected self-government and a constitution, it was no longer a colony. However, Ponsa-Kraus and other constitutional scholars argue that because the United States Congress has power over the government of Puerto Rico, it is still subordinate to the United States and therefore effectively remains a colonial territory despite its Commonwealth status. .
To further complicate the status issue, Puerto Rico’s official name in Spanish is different from its name in English. In Spanish, the territory is called el Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, which results in a free associated state. Under international law, an associated free state is an independent country that has strengthened its association with another country through a treaty. It is also a misnomer since Puerto Rico is not an independent country but rather an American territory.
The future of Puerto Rico
For hundreds of years, Puerto Rico fought to decolonize the archipelago. However, there have long been divisions over how best to resolve this issue: one state, improved Commonwealth status (where Puerto Rico still relates to the United States but with more autonomy) or independence. .
According to Ponsa-Kraus, the legal process of admitting Puerto Rico to statehood would only require a few steps: the territory adopts a constitution for its accession to statehood, Congress approves it (and can impose additional conditions to the state to ensure it is in harmony with the larger federalist structure of the United States), and then Congress passes a law allowing the territory to become a state. Likewise, by simple legislation, Congress can provide for the independence of a territory. Despite its constitutional and legal simplicity, the policy makes the process complex.
In November 2020, Puerto Ricans voted in a non-binding referendum on statehood. About 53 percent of Puerto Ricans were in favor of a state, while 47 percent rejected it. However, only 55% of Puerto Ricans voted in the referendum. Supporters of the state saw the results as proof that most Puerto Ricans want the territory admitted, but opponents questioned the validity of the votes as referendums are non-binding, often promoted only by the party. pro-state and include the opinions of only half of Puerto Ricans. .
“Legally speaking, it’s pretty straightforward,” Ponsa-Kraus says. “The battle is over by trying to convince people to want or oppose a state. “