Proposed political status for Puerto Rico

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The proposed political status for Puerto Rico encompasses the different schools of thought on whether Puerto Rico, currently a Commonwealth of the United States, should change its current political status. Although there are many differing points of view, there are four that emerge in principle: that Puerto Rico maintains its current status, becomes a state of the United States, becomes fully independent, or becomes a freely associated state.

Even though Puerto Rico was granted local autonomy in 1952, it remains a territory of the United States. Its ambiguous status continues to spark political debates which dominate Puerto Rican society. The debate over Puerto Rico has been discussed at various UN hearings where it has been declared a colony of the United States by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Various Presidents of the United States have expressed themselves in favor of statehood but ultimately left the decision to Puerto Rico. President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status were published in 2005, 2007 and 2011. Non-binding referendums regarding Puerto Rico's status have been held in 1967, 1993, 1997 and 2012. The results of the referendums have favored the commonwealth status until 2012 when for the first time Puerto Ricans have voted against it and for statehood.


Prior to Jones Act[edit]

Puerto Rico became an American territory in 1898 when, as per the terms of the Treaty of Paris which concluded the Spanish–American War, Spain ceded the island (and several other possessions) to the United States.[1]

The U.S. Congress enacted the Foraker Act (also known as the Organic Act of 1900) sponsored by Senator Joseph B. Foraker, signed by President McKinley on April 2, 1900. This act established a civil government and free commerce between Puerto Rico and the United States. The structure of the insular government included a governor appointed by the president, an executive council (the equivalent of a senate), and a legislature with 35 members, though the executive veto required a two-thirds vote to override. The first appointed civil governor, Charles Herbert Allen, was inaugurated on May 1, 1900.[2]

On June 5, President McKinley appointed an Executive Council which included five Puerto Rican members and six U.S. members. The act also established the creation of a judicial system headed by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and allowed Puerto Rico to send a Resident Commissioner as a representative to Congress. The Department of Education was subsequently formed, headed by Dr. Martin Grove Brumbaugh (later governor of Pennsylvania). Teaching was conducted entirely in English with Spanish treated as a special subject. However, both Spanish and English were official languages in the island. On November 6, the first elections under the Foraker Act were held and on December 3, the first Legislative Assembly took office. Federico Degetau took office in Washington as the first Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico on March 14, 1901.

Jones Act and the 1940s[edit]

The Jones Act was approved by the U.S. Congress on December 5, 1916, and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on March 2, 1917. The law made Puerto Rico a United States territory which is "organized but unincorporated." Puerto Ricans were also collectively given a restricted U.S. citizenship. This implied that Puerto Ricans in the island did not have full American citizenship rights, such as the right to vote for electors for the president of the United States. The act divided governmental powers into three branches: executive (appointed by the President of the United States), legislative (consisting of a 19-member senate and a 39-member house of representatives, all elected by the Puerto Rican people), and judicial. A bill of rights, which established elections to be held every four years, was also created. The act also made English the official language of the Puerto Rican courts. Section 27 of the Jones Acts deals with cabotage and requires that all goods by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. The act also allowed conscription to be extended to the island, and over 20,000 Puerto Rican soldiers were sent to the United States Army during the First World War.[3]

In the years after World War II, social, political and economic changes began to take place that have continued to shape the island's character today. The late 1940s brought the beginning of a major migration to the continental United States, mainly to New York City, for work, and to remit money back to their families. The main reasons for this were an undesirable economic situation brought by the Great Depression, as well as heavy recruitment made by the U.S. armed forces and U.S. companies.

Political changes began in 1946 when President Harry Truman designated the first Puerto Rican, Commissioner Resident Jesús T. Piñero, to serve as the island's governor. On June 10, 1948, Piñero signed the infamous "Ley de la Mordaza" (Gag Law), or Law 53, as it was officially known, passed by the Puerto Rican legislature presided by Luis Muñoz Marín in May 1948, which made it illegal to display the Puerto Rican flag, sing a patriotic song, talk of independence and to fight for the liberation of the island. It resembled the anti-communist Smith Act passed in the United States.[3][4]

In 1947, the U.S. Congress passed the Elective Governor Act, signed by President Truman, allowing Puerto Ricans to vote for their own governor, and the first elections under this act were held on November 2, 1948. Luis Muñoz Marín, president of the Puerto Rican Senate, successfully campaigned and became the first democratically elected Governor of the island on January 2, 1949.

1950s to present-day[edit]

Puerto Rico continues to struggle to define its political status.

Operation Bootstrap[edit]

In 1950, Washington introduced Operation Bootstrap, an attempt to transform Puerto Rico's economy to an industrialized and developed one, which greatly stimulated economic growth from 1950 until the 1970s. Due to billions of dollars of corporate investments, the growth rate was 6% for the 1950s, 5% for the 1960s, and 4% for the 1970s. Puerto Rico became one of the most affluent economies in Latin America. But, it had to import 80% of its food.

Operation Bootstrap was sponsored by governor Muñoz Marín. It was coupled with agrarian reform (land redistribution) that limited the area that could be held by large sugarcane interests. Operation Bootstrap enticed U.S. mainland investors to transfer or create manufacturing plants by granting them local and federal tax concessions, but maintaining the access to mainland markets free of import duties. Another incentive was the lower wage scales in the densely populated island. The program accelerated the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. The 1950s saw the development of labor-intensive light industries, such as textiles; later manufacturing gave way to heavy industry, such as petrochemicals and oil refining, in the 1960s and 1970s. Muñoz Marín's development programs brought some prosperity for an emergent middle class. The industrialization was in part fueled by generous local incentives and freedom from federal taxation, while providing access to continental US markets without import duties. As a result, a rural agricultural society was transformed into an industrial working class.

Commonwealth status[edit]

On July 4, 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed Public Act 600, which allowed Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution establishing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The U.S. Congress had granted commonwealth status on Puerto Rico that enhanced Puerto Rico's political status from protectorate to commonwealth. This, coupled with Muñoz Marín's reversal on not pursuing Puerto Rican Independence angered some Puerto Ricans.

On July 25, 1952, the Constitution of Puerto Rico was approved by voters in a referendum, and the island organized as the Estado Libre Asociado (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico). That same year marked the first time that the Flag of Puerto Rico could be publicly displayed.


On July 23, 1967, the first plebiscite on the political status of Puerto Rico was held. Voters overwhelmingly affirmed continuation of Commonwealth status (with 60.4% voting to remain a commonwealth, 39% voting to work towards statehood, and 0.6% wishing for independence). Other referendums have been held to determine the political status of Puerto Rico, in 1993 and in 1998. Both times, although by smaller margins, the status quo has been upheld. In 2012, a majority voted to become a state.

Options for political status[edit]

As defined by Puerto Rico itself, the following are the options to resolve its status.

Commonwealth (current status)[edit]

Puerto Rico will remain a territory of the United States. Puerto Rico will use the dollar as their currency. A resident commissioner will represent the island interests in Congress but he will have no vote. Puerto Rico will adhere to the cabotage laws. International trade is restricted to the USA. Puerto Ricans will remain US Citizens. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in United States elections but must obey federal laws. However, Puerto Ricans do not pay federal taxes unless they work for a federal agency. Puerto Ricans have a limited citizenship while living on the island but they can become full citizens if they move to any of the states. As American born citizens, they can travel freely to any state they desire. Federal laws apply and federal agencies like the FBI operate on the island. Appeals to local law may be made at the federal court.


Puerto Rico would become the 51st state of the United States. The state would have due representation in the United States Congress with full voting rights; Puerto Rico would be represented in the Senate by two senators and the size of its delegation to the House of Representatives would be determined by its population (Connecticut, which has a similar population, currently has five representatives). Similarly, Puerto Rico would return a population-dependent number of electors to the electoral college for the Presidency (cf. Connecticut's current seven electors). Federal taxes would apply on the island. The apportionment of federal aid to the island would be handled as for other states.

Free Associated State[edit]

Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation with a political and economical treaty of association with the U.S. that would stipulate all delegated agreements. This could give Puerto Rico a similar status to Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, countries which currently have a Compact of Free Association with the United States.


Puerto Rico becomes a fully independent, sovereign nation, with an independent judiciary and full control over domestic and foreign policy. Relations with the U.S. would be a matter of foreign policy. The U.S. would have no formal obligations to Puerto Rico and its citizens (and vice versa), other than those agreed by bilateral agreements of both nations.

Former or less popular options[edit]

  • Antillean Confederation: This option was very popular with Puerto Rican Political leaders of the late nineteenth century. It involved Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic joining and becoming a confederation. There are still a few supporters of this option in the island.
  • Return to Spain: This option calls for Puerto Rico to become part of Spain once again, possibly as an autonomous community. Many Puerto Ricans recently requested Spanish Citizenship per the Historical Memory Law. In addition, becoming part of Spain again would allow Puerto Ricans to become EU citizens and move to Europe per the Schengen Agreement.[5] As of 2016 rejoining Spain has not proven popular with the people nor the officials in Puerto Rico, Spain or the United States. There are also fiscal and monetary reasons this is not feasible in the short term, as Spain was very hard hit by the Great Recession and the 2008–15 Spanish financial crisis and is under severe austerity measures.

2012 referendum[edit]

Following the recommendations of the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status reports, in October 2011, Governor Luis Fortuño set August 12, 2012 as the date to hold the first part of a two-step status plebiscite. The first question was whether voters want to maintain the current commonwealth status under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution or whether they prefer a non-territorial option. The second question presented three status options: statehood, independence or free association.[6] Each alternative was to be an internationally recognized, constitutionally viable, non-territorial options to the current territory status.[7] A bill was brought before the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico in 2011 to effect the governor's proposal. The bill passed on December 28, 2011.

In the event, both referendum questions were placed on a single ballot for voting on November 6, 2012. The New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico endorsed statehood. The Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico endorsed the current Commonwealth position; it called for abstention in the second question. The Puerto Rico Independence Party endorsed the independence position.

During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, leading candidates for both major parties said they supported the referendum process. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said: "I will support the people of Puerto Rico if they make a decision that they would prefer to become a state; that's a decision that I will support. I don't have preconditions that I would impose."[8] President Barack Obama had also supported the referendum, writing, "I am firmly committed to the principle that the question of political status is a matter of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico."[9][10]

Puerto Rico statehood referenda occurred on November 6, 2012. The result a 54% majority of the ballots cast against the continuation of the island's territorial political status, and in favor of a new status. Of votes for new status, a 61.1% majority chose statehood.[7][11][12] This was by far the most successful referendum for statehood advocates. In all earlier referenda, votes for statehood were matched almost equally by votes for remaining an American territory, with the remainder for independence. Support for U.S. statehood has risen in each successive popular referendum.[13][14]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain". Yale University. Retrieved 2 August 2015. 
  2. ^ "Foraker Act (Organic Act of 1900)". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2 August 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Rivera, Magaly. "History of Puerto Rico - 1900-1949". Magaly Rivera. Retrieved 2 August 2015. 
  4. ^ Pariser, Harry (1987). Explore Puerto Rico (5th ed.). Moon Publications. p. 23. Retrieved 2 August 2015. The Puerto Rican legislature passed la mordaza (the "gag law") in May 1948. 
  5. ^ "Puerto Rico movement pitches solution to economic woes: rejoin Spain". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-03-04. 
  6. ^ Puerto Rico’s Political Status and the 2012 Plebiscite: Background and Key Questions
  7. ^ a b November 7, 2012, 9:55 AM. "Puerto Rico votes for U.S. statehood in non-binding referendum". CBS News. Retrieved 2012-11-08. 
  8. ^ Sarah B. Boxer, Romney supports Puerto Rican statehood without English condition, CBS News (March 16, 2012).
  9. ^ Roger Runningen & Julianna Goldman, Obama Wants Puerto Rico to Decide Statehood or Independence, Bloomberg News (June 14, 2011).
  10. ^ Statement of President Obama (March 11, 2011).
  11. ^ Archived from the original on November 7, 2012. Retrieved November 8, 2012.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ Associated Press (2012-11-04). "Puerto Rico vote could change ties to U.S.". SFGate. Retrieved 2012-11-08. 
  13. ^ "An Introduction to Puerto Rico's Status Debate". Let Puerto Rico Decide. Retrieved 2012-03-29. 
  14. ^ Puerto Ricans favor statehood for first time, CNN, 7 November 2012