Foreign and intergovernmental relations of Puerto Rico

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The foreign and intergovernmental relations of Puerto Rico are governed by the Commerce and Territorial Clause of the Constitution of the United States. Because of this, they are subject to the plenary powers of Congress. Nonetheless, Puerto Rico has established relations with foreign nations, particularly with Hispanic American countries such as Colombia and Panamá.[1][2] The establishment of such relations, however, requires permission from the U.S. Department of State or Congress itself.[a] Still, most relations are already set by existent laws or trade agreements established beforehand by the United States that supersede the relation pursued by Puerto Rico.

At the local level, Puerto Rico established through a domestic law that its foreign affairs must be managed by the Department of State of Puerto Rico, an executive department. The executive officer of this department is known as the Secretary of State of Puerto Rico, currently Víctor Suárez Meléndez, an attorney and veteran public servant, and member of the Popular Democratic Party and of the Democratic Party of the United States.

In a similar fashion, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, along with the Office of the Resident Commissioner, manage all the intergovernmental affairs of Puerto Rico before entities of, or in, the United States. These entities include the federal government of the United States, local and state governments of the United States, and public or private entities in the United States. Both offices frequently assist the Department of State of Puerto Rico in engaging with Washington, D.C.-based ambassadors and federal agencies that handle Puerto Rico's foreign affairs, such as the U.S. Department of State and the Agency for International Development (USAID).

In terms of leadership, the Administration is headed by a director while the Office is headed by the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico. Juan Eugenio Hernández Mayoral currently heads the administration, a former senator in the Puerto Rican legislature, and a member of the Popular Democratic and of the Democratic Party. Politically, the resident commissioner possesses a higher rank as he is the delegate elected by Puerto Ricans to represent them upon Congress, specifically within the U.S. House of Representatives. His rank stems from the right to serve on congressional committees, a right he exercises in every aspect like that of any other legislator, except being denied a vote on the final disposition of all legislations on the House floor. Today, the post is held by Pedro Pierluisi, an attorney and veteran public servant, and a member of the New Progressive Party and of the Democratic Party.


Prior to the arrival of Spaniards, the natives of Puerto Rico, the Taíno, had direct foreign relations with other tribes of the Caribbean. For example, they were known to have amicable relations with the tribes settled in the Greater and the Lesser Antilles, while it is widely believed that they were historical enemies of the Carib. It is unknown, however, if this applied to the Taíno of Puerto Rico, as archeologists believe they may have been allies with the Carib at some point. Findings so far have been inconclusive.

Upon the arrivals of Spaniards in 1493, Puerto Rico opened up to both the New and the Old World, establishing trading routes with North, Central and South America, as well as routes with Spain, Portugal and Africa. Trading of vegetables, fruits, slaves, and minerals became an integral part of Puerto Rico's international development afterwards.

After Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States as part of the Treaty of Paris, the United States and Puerto Rico began a long-standing metropolis-colony relationship.[4] It is at this time that Puerto Rico became subject to the Commercial and Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution, clauses that restrict how and with whom can Puerto Rico engage internationally.[b] The territory also became, as a byproduct, subject to the different treaties and trade agreements ratified by the United States.

Map of Jones Act carrier routes for Puerto Rico.

In 1920, after the enactment of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (also known as the Jones Act), Puerto Rico became restricted on which merchant marine it can use to import and export products. This is because the Jones Act prevents foreign-flagged ships from carrying cargo between two American ports (a practice known as cabotage). Under the Jones Act, foreign ships inbound with goods from Central and South America, Western Europe, and Africa cannot stop in Puerto Rico, offload Puerto Rico-bound goods, load mainland-bound Puerto Rico-manufactured goods, and continue to U.S. ports.[c] Instead, they must proceed directly to U.S. ports, where distributors break bulk and send Puerto Rico-bound manufactured goods to Puerto Rico across the ocean by U.S.-flagged ships.[5][d]

In modern times, Puerto Rico has been able to establish several treaties and trade agreements mostly with Hispanic American nations due to their cultural and linguistic similarities. Today, Puerto Rico has trade agreements with Colombia and Panamá, along with strong ties with its neighbors in the Caribbean Sea, particularly with the Dominican Republic and the United States Virgin Islands.[1][2]

International organizations[edit]

Puerto Rico is restricted to join international organizations without the consent of the United States due to its current political status.[b] However, due to its geographical and cultural nature, the U.S. Department of State allows Puerto Rico to be an observer in most international organizations to which it would potentially belong to if Puerto Rico were a sovereign state.[e]

Name Abbreviation Category Status Headquartered
Caribbean Community CARICOM regional observer Georgetown, Guyana
Caribbean Tourism Organization CTO tourism observer Bridgetown, Barbados
International Olympic Committee IOC sports full member Lausanne, Switzerland
Organization of American States OAS continental observer Washington, D.C.
United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean ECLAC regional associate member[f] Santiago, Chile

Puerto Rico was denied observer status by the U.S. Department of State within the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) due to the anti-American rhetoric of some of its founders, namely Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela. However, on January 9, 2014, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced a proposed plan to incorporate Puerto Rico into CELAC.[7]


Trade agreements[edit]

Countries with whom Puerto Rico can freely engage in trade without diplomatic restrictions
Country Region Agreement Established trade promotion office in foreign country[8]
Australia Oceania AUSFTA X mark.svg No
Bahrain Western Asia USBFTA X mark.svg No
Canada North America NAFTA X mark.svg No
Chile South America ChFTA X mark.svg No
Colombia South America CFTA Yes check.svg Yes
Costa Rica Central America CAFTA X mark.svg No
Dominican Republic Caribbean CAFTA Yes check.svg Yes
El Salvador Central America CAFTA X mark.svg No
Guatemala Central America CAFTA X mark.svg No
Honduras Central America CAFTA X mark.svg No
Israel Western Asia USIFTA X mark.svg No
Jordan Western Asia USJFTA X mark.svg No
Mexico North America NAFTA X mark.svg No
Morocco North Africa USMFTA X mark.svg No
Nicaragua Central America CAFTA X mark.svg No
Oman Western Asia OFTA X mark.svg No
Panama Central America PTPA Yes check.svg Yes
Peru South America USPTPA Yes check.svg Yes
Singapore Southeast Asia USSFTA X mark.svg No
South Korea East Asia KFTA X mark.svg No
United States North America NAFTA Yes check.svg Yes

Military conflicts[edit]

The federal government of the United States is responsible for the military protection of Puerto Rico. Residents of Puerto Rico who are either citizens or permanent residents can serve in the United States armed forces. At the local level, Puerto Rico has its own national guard, namely the Puerto Rico National Guard. The governor of Puerto Rico is the local commander-in-chief, while the national commander-in-chief is the President of the United States. Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. armed forces in every conflict since World War I and, most recently, have been part of the War on Terror including the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War.(September 2013)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Caribbean Business (2013) "In 2003, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell [...] reportedly warned of any commonwealth gesture to join international organisms as an independent entity without the approval of the U.S. State Department."[3]
  2. ^ a b Caribbean Business (2013) "An internal agency memo from a decade ago said: 'Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has the sole responsibility for the conduct of U.S. foreign relations, and this includes the foreign relations that relate to U.S. territories.'"[3]
  3. ^ 46 App. U.S. Code § 883. "No merchandise, including merchandise owned by the United States Government, a State [...], or a subdivision of a State, shall be transported by water [...] between points in the United States, including Districts, Territories, and possessions thereof embraced within the coastwise laws, either directly or via a foreign port, or for any part of the transportation, in any other vessel than a vessel built in and documented under the laws of the United States and owned by persons who are citizens of the United States [...]"
  4. ^ Gutierrez. "The “cabotage” laws impose significant restrictions on commerce between Puerto Rico and the U. S. mainland by requiring that merchandise and produce shipped by water between U.S. ports be shipped only on U.S.-built, U.S.- manned, U.S.-flagged, and U.S.-citizen owned vessels."[6]
  5. ^ Caribbean Business (2013) "The U.S. State Department has previously given the green-light to Puerto Rico’s active participation in limited international forums."[3]
  6. ^ ECLAC defines an 'associate member' as a non-independent territory.


  1. ^ a b "Colombia y Puerto Rico se dan la mano". El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). July 20, 2013. Retrieved August 11, 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Relaciones comerciales entre Colombia y Puerto Rico" (in Spanish). Universidad ICESI. July 23, 2013. Retrieved August 11, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c "Maduro wants PR in CELAC bloc". Caribbean Business. August 9, 2013. Archived from the original on 2014-01-09. Retrieved January 9, 2014.
  4. ^ Truman R. Clark. Puerto Rico and the United States, 1917-1933. 1975. University of Pittsburgh Press. Page 129.
  5. ^ "The US shipping industry is putting a multimillion dollar squeeze on Puerto Rico". Business Insider. Retrieved 2016-01-05.
  6. ^ Gutierrez, Elías. "Impact of the Coastwise Trade Laws on the Transportation System of the United States of America" (PDF). Retrieved September 6, 2013.
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Puerto Rico inaugura oficina comercial en Colombia". El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). July 5, 2014. Retrieved July 5, 2014.