Puerto Rico, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Spanish: “Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico”, literally Associated Free State of Puerto Rico), is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean Sea, east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico (Spanish for “rich port”) comprises an archipelago that includes the main island of Puerto Rico and a number of smaller islands, the largest of which are Vieques, Culebra, and Mona. The main island of Puerto Rico is the smallest by land area of the Greater Antilles. It, however, ranks third in population among that group of four islands, which also include Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica. Due to its location, Puerto Rico enjoys a tropical climate and also experiences the Atlantic hurricane season. Originally populated for centuries by indigenous aboriginal peoples known as Taínos, the island was claimed by Christopher Columbus for Spain during his second voyage to the Americas. Under Spanish rule, the island was colonized and the indigenous population was forced into slavery and nearly wiped out due to European infectious diseases. The remaining population was emancipated by King Carlos I in 1520. Spain possessed Puerto Rico for over 400 years, despite attempts at capture of the island by France, the Netherlands, and England. The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has its origins dating back to the Spanish-American War, in which Spain ceded the islands to the U.S. in 1898. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and the United States Congress legislates many aspects of Puerto Rican life. However, the islanders may not vote in U.S. presidential elections. Since 1947, Puerto Ricans have been able to elect their own governor. The official languages of the country are Spanish and English, with Spanish being the primary language. The island’s current political status, including the possibility of statehood or independence, is widely debated in Puerto Rico. Name – Puerto Ricans often call the island Borinquen, from Borikén, its indigenous Taíno name, which means “Land of the Valiant Lord”. The terms boricua and borincano derive from Borikén and Borinquen respectively, and are commonly used to identify someone of Puerto Rican heritage. The island is also popularly known in Spanish as “La Isla del Encanto” which means “The Island of Enchantment” in English.
Pre-Columbian era – The ancient history of the archipelago known today as “Puerto Rico” before the arrival of Christopher Columbus is not well known. Unlike other larger more advanced indigenous communities in the New World (Aztec, Inca) which left behind abundant archeological and physical evidence of their societies, what is known today about the indigenous population of Puerto Rico comes from scarce archaeological findings and early Spanish scholarly accounts. Today, there are few and rare cave drawings, rock carvings and ancient recreational activity sites that have been identified with some degree of speculation as to who left them behind. The first comprehensive book on the history of Puerto Rico was written by Fray Íñigo Abbad y Lasierra in 1786, almost three centuries after the first Spaniards arrived on the island. The first settlers were the Ortoiroid people, an Archaic Period culture of Amerindian hunters and fishermen. An archaeological dig in the island of Vieques in 1990 found the remains of what is believed to be an Arcaico (Archaic) man (named “Puerto Ferro Man”) dated to around 2000 BC. The Igneri, a tribe from the region of the Orinoco river, in northern South America, arrived between 120 and 400 AD. The Arcaicos and Igneri co-existed on the island between the 4th and 10th centuries, and perhaps clashed. Between the 7th and 11th centuries the Taíno culture developed on the island, and by approximately 1000 AD had become dominant. At the time of Columbus’ arrival, an estimated 30 to 60 thousand Taíno Amerindians, led by cacique (chief) Agüeybaná, inhabited the island. They called it Boriken, “the great land of the valiant and noble Lord”. The natives lived in small villages led by a cacique and subsisted on hunting, fishing and gathering of indigenous cassava root and fruit. This lasted until Christopher Columbus arrived in 1493. However, Puerto Rican culture today exhibits many Taíno influences within its music and vocabulary. Spanish colony – When Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico during his second voyage on November 19, 1493, the island was inhabited by the Taínos. They called the island “Borikén” or, in Spanish, “Borinquen”. Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. The first Spanish settlement, Caparra, was founded on August 8, 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant under Columbus, who later became the first governor of the island. Eventually, traders and other maritime visitors came to refer to the entire island as “Puerto Rico”, and “San Juan” became the name of the main trading/shipping port. Soon thereafter, the Spanish began to colonize the island. The indigenous population (Taínos) came to be exploited and forced into slavery. Within 50 years they were reduced to near extinction by the harsh conditions of work and by European infectious diseases to which they had no natural immunity. For example, the smallpox outbreak in 1518–1519 wiped out much of the Island’s indigenous population. In 1520, King of Spain Carlos I issued a royal decree collectively emancipating the remaining Taíno population. Essentially, the Taíno presence while not completely extinct had almost vanished. The importation of Sub-Saharan African slaves was introduced to provide the new manual work force for the Spanish colonists and merchants. Following the decline of the Taíno population, more slaves were brought to Puerto Rico; however, the number of slaves on the island paled in comparison to those in neighboring islands. African slavery was primarily restricted to coastal ports and cities, while the interior of the island continued to be essentially unexplored and undeveloped. Spanish and other European colonists were concentrated in island’s seaports. Puerto Rico soon became an important stronghold and a significant port for Spanish Main colonial expansion. Various forts and walls, such as La Fortaleza, El Castillo San Felipe del Morro and El Castillo de San Cristóbal, were built to protect the strategic port of San Juan from numerous European invasion attempts. San Juan served as an important port-of-call for ships of all European nations for purposes of taking on water, food and other commercial provisions and mercantile exchange. In 1607, Puerto Rico served as a port for provisions for the English ships the Godspeed, Susan Constant and the Discovery who were on their way to establish the Jamestown Settlement, the first English settlement in the New World. The Netherlands and England made several attempts to capture Puerto Rico but failed to wrest the long-term occupancy of Spain, who held tenaciously onto its increasingly prized island colony of Puerto Rico. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Spain’s colonial emphasis continued to be focused on the more prosperous mainland North, Central and South American colonies. This continued distraction on the part of the Spanish Crown left the island of Puerto Rico virtually unexplored, undeveloped and uncolonized (with the exception of coastal colonist outposts) until the 19th century. Subsequently, with the growth of successful independence movements in the larger Spanish colonies, Spain soon began to focus its attention on Puerto Rico as one of the last remaining Spanish maritime colonies. Amidst the attacks, Puerto Rican culture began to flourish. In 1786, the first comprehensive history of Puerto Rico—Historia Geográfica, Civil y Política de Puerto Rico by Fray Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra—was published in Madrid, documenting the history of Puerto Rico from the time of Columbus’ landing in 1493 until 1783. The book also presents a first hand account of Puerto Rican identity, including music, clothing, personality and nationality. In 1779, citizens of the still-Spanish colony of Puerto Rico fought in the American Revolutionary War under the command of Bernardo de Gálvez, named Field Marshal of the Spanish colonial army in North America. Puerto Ricans participated in the capture of Pensacola, the capital of the British colony of West Florida, and the cities of Baton Rouge, St. Louis and Mobile.
The Puerto Rican troops, under the leadership of Brigadier General Ramón de Castro, helped defeat the British and Indian army of 2,500 soldiers and British warships in Pensacola. In 1809, in a further move to secure its political bond with the island and in the midst of the European Peninsular War, the Supreme Central Junta based in Cádiz recognized Puerto Rico as an overseas province of Spain with the right to send representatives to the recently convened Spanish parliament with equal representation to Mainland Iberian, Mediterranean (Balearic Islands) and Atlantic maritime Spanish provinces (Canary Islands). The first Spanish parliamentary representative from the island of Puerto Rico, Ramon Power y Giralt, died after serving a three-year term in the Cortes. These parliamentary and constitutional reforms, which were in force from 1810 to 1814 and again from 1820 to 1823, were reversed twice afterwards when the traditional monarchy was restored by Ferdinand VII. Nineteenth century immigration and commercial trade reforms further augmented the island’s European population and economy, and expanded Spanish cultural and social imprint on the local character of the island. With the increasingly rapid growth of independent former Spanish colonies in the South and Central American states in the first part of the century, Puerto Rico and Cuba continued to grow in strategic importance to the Spanish Crown. In a very deliberate move to increase its hold on its last two new world colonies, the Spanish Crown revived the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815. This time the decree was printed in three languages: Spanish, English and French. Its primary intent was to attract Europeans of non-Spanish origin, with the hope that the independence movements would lose their popularity and strength with increase of new loyalist settlers with strong sympathies to Spain. As an incentive to immigrate and colonize, free land was offered to those who wanted to populate the two islands on the condition that they swear their loyalty to the Spanish Crown and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. It was very successful and European immigration continued even after 1898. Puerto Rico today still receives Spanish and European immigration. Poverty and political estrangement with Spain led to a small but significant uprising in 1868 known as “Grito de Lares.” It began in the rural town of Lares, but was subdued when rebels moved to the neighboring town of San Sebastián. Leaders of this independence movement included Ramón Emeterio Betances, considered the “father” of the Puerto Rican independence movement, and other political figures such as Segundo Ruiz Belvis. In 1897, Luis Muñoz Rivera and others persuaded the liberal Spanish government to agree to Charters of Autonomy for Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1898, Puerto Rico’s first, but short-lived, autonomous government was organized as an ‘overseas province’ of Spain. This bilaterally agreed-upon charter maintained a governor appointed by Spain, which held the power to annul any legislative decision, and a partially elected parliamentary structure. In February, Governor-General Manuel Macías inaugurated the new government under the Autonomous Charter. General elections were held in March and the autonomous government began to function on July 17, 1898.
United States Colony
In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a member of the Navy War Board and leading U.S. strategic thinker, wrote a book titled The Influence of Sea Power upon History in which he argued for the creation of a large and powerful navy modeled after the British Royal Navy. Part of his strategy called for the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean Sea which would serve as coaling and naval stations and which would serve as strategical points of defense upon the construction of a canal in the Isthmus. This idea was not new, since William H. Seward, the former Secretary of State under the administrations of various presidents, among them Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, had stressed that a canal be built either in Honduras, Nicaragua or Panama and that the United States annex the Dominican Republic and purchase Puerto Rico and Cuba. The idea of annexing the Dominican Republic failed to receive the approval of the U.S. Senate and Spain did not accept the 160 million dollars which the U.S. offered for Puerto Rico and Cuba. Captain Mahan made the following statement to the War Department: Having therefore no foreign establishments either colonial or military, the ships of war of the United States, in war will be like land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores. To provide resting places for them where they can coal and repair, would be one of the first duties of a government proposing to itself the development of the power of the nation at sea. Since 1894, the Naval War College had been formulating contingency plans for a war with Spain. By 1896, the Office of Naval Intelligence had prepared a plan which included military operations in Puerto Rican waters. This prewar planning did not contemplate major territorial acquisitions. Except for one 1895 plan which recommended annexation of the island then named Isle of Pines (later renamed as Isla de la Juventud), a recommendation dropped in later planning, plans developed for attacks on Spanish territories were intended as support operations against Spain’s forces in and around Cuba. However, Jorge Rodriguez Beruf, recognized as a foremost researcher on United States militarism in Puerto Rico, writes that not only was Puerto Rico considered valuable as a naval station, Puerto Rico and Cuba were also abundant in sugar – a valuable commercial commodity which the United States lacked. On July 25, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States with a landing at Guánica. As an outcome of the war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines and Guam, that were under Spanish sovereignty, to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris. Spain relinquished sovereignty over Cuba, but did not cede it to the U.S. The United States and Puerto Rico thus began a long-standing relationship. Puerto Rico began the 20th century under the military rule of the U.S. with officials, including the governor, appointed by the President of the United States. The Foraker Act of 1900 gave Puerto Rico a certain amount of civilian popular government, including a popularly elected House of Representatives, also a judicial system following the American legal system that includes both state courts and federal courts establishing a Puerto Rico Supreme Court and a United State District Court; and a non-voting member of Congress, by the title of “Resident Commissioner”. In addition, this Act extended all U.S. laws “not locally inapplicable” to Puerto Rico, specifying specific exemption from U.S. Internal Revenue laws. The act empowered the civil government to legislate on “all matters of legislative character not locally inapplicable”, including the power to modify and repeal any laws then in existence in Puerto Rico, though the U.S. Congress retained the power to annul acts of the Puerto Rico legislature. During an address to the Puerto Rican legislature in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt recommended that Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens. In 1917, “Puerto Ricans were collectively made U.S. citizens” via the Jones Act. The same Act also provided for a popularly elected Senate to complete a bicameral Legislative Assembly, a bill of rights and authorized the election of a Resident Commissioner to a four-year term. As a result of their new U.S. citizenship, many Puerto Ricans were drafted into World War I and all subsequent wars with U.S. participation in which a national military draft was in effect. Natural disasters, including a major earthquake, a tsunami and several hurricanes, and the Great Depression impoverished the island during the first few decades under U.S. rule. Some political leaders, like Pedro Albizu Campos who led the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, demanded change. On March 21, 1937, a march was organized in the southern city of Ponce by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. This march turned bloody when the Insular Police, “a force somewhat resembling the National Guard which answered to the U.S.-appointed governor”, opened fire upon unarmed and defenseless cadets and bystanders alike, as reported by a U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio and the “Hays Commission” led by Arthur Garfield Hays. Nineteen were killed and over 200 were badly wounded, many in their backs while running away. An American Civil Liberties Union report declared it a massacre and it has since been known as the Ponce Massacre. On April 2, 1943, U.S. Senator Millard Tydings introduced a bill in Congress calling for independence for Puerto Rico. This bill ultimately was defeated. The internal governance changed during the latter years of the Roosevelt–Truman administrations, as a form of compromise led by Luis Muñoz Marín and others. It culminated with the appointment by President Truman in 1946 of the first Puerto Rican-born governor, Jesús T. Piñero. On June 11, 1948, Piñero signed the “Ley de la Mordaza” (Gag Law) or Law 53 as it was officially known, passed by the Puerto Rican legislature which made it illegal to display the Puerto Rican Flag, sing patriotic songs, talk of independence and to fight for the liberation of the island. It resembled the anti-communist Smith Law passed in the United States.
In 1947, the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans the right to elect democratically their own governor. Luis Muñoz Marín was elected during the 1948 general elections, becoming the first popularly elected governor of Puerto Rico. In 1950, the U.S. Congress approved Public Law 600 (P.L. 81-600) which allowed for a democratic referendum in Puerto Rico to determine whether Puerto Ricans desired to draft their own local constitution. This act was meant to be adopted in the “nature of a compact”. It required congressional approval of the Puerto Rico Constitution before it could go into effect and repealed certain sections of the Organic Act of 1917. The sections of this statute left in force were then entitled the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act. On October 30, 1950, Pedro Albizu Campos and other nationalists led a 3-day revolt against the United States in various cities and towns of Puerto Rico. The most notable occurred in Jayuya and Utuado. In the Jayuya revolt, known as the Jayuya Uprising, the United States declared martial law and attacked Jayuya with infantry, artillery and bombers. The Utuado Uprising culminated in what is known as the Utuado massacre. On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate President Harry S Truman. Torresola was killed during the attack, but Collazo was captured. Collazo served 29 years in a federal prison, being released in 1979. Don Pedro Albizu Campos also served many years in a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia, for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. The Constitution of Puerto Rico was approved by a Constitutional Convention on February 6, 1952, ratified by the U.S. Congress, approved by President Truman on July 3 of that year, and proclaimed by Gov. Muñoz Marín on July 25, 1952, on the anniversary of the July 25, 1898, landing of U.S. troops in the Puerto Rican Campaign of the Spanish-American War, until then an annual Puerto Rico holiday. Puerto Rico adopted the name of Estado Libre Asociado (literally translated as “Free Associated State”), officially translated into English as Commonwealth, for its body politic. The United States Congress legislates over many fundamental aspects of Puerto Rican life, including citizenship, currency, postal service, foreign affairs, military defense, communications, labor relations, the environment, commerce, finance, health and welfare, and many others. During the 1950s Puerto Rico experienced rapid industrialization, due in large part to Operación Manos a la Obra (“Operation Bootstrap”), an offshoot of FDR’s New Deal, which aimed to transform Puerto Rico’s economy from agriculture-based to manufacturing-based. Presently, Puerto Rico has become a major tourist destination, as well as a global center for pharmaceutical manufacturing. Yet it still struggles to define its political status. Three plebiscites have been held in recent decades to resolve the political status, but no changes have been attained. Support for the pro-statehood party, Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), and the pro-commonwealth party, Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), remains about equal. The only registered pro-independence party, the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), usually receives 3–5% of the electoral votes.
Government and Politics
Puerto Rico has a republican form of government, subject to U.S. jurisdiction and sovereignty. Its current powers are all delegated by the United States Congress and lack full protection under the United States Constitution. Puerto Rico’s head of state is the President of the United States. The government of Puerto Rico, based on the formal republican system, is composed of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive branch is headed by the Governor, currently Luis Fortuño. The legislative branch consists of a bicameral Legislative Assembly made up of a Senate upper chamber and a House of Representatives lower chamber. The Senate is headed by the President of the Senate, while the House of Representatives is headed by the Speaker of the House. The judicial branch is headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. The legal system is a mix of the civil law and the common law systems. The governor and legislators are elected by popular vote every four years. Members of the Judicial branch are appointed by the governor with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Puerto Rico is represented in the United States Congress by a nonvoting delegate, formally called a Resident Commissioner (currently Pedro Pierluisi). Current legislation has returned the Commissioner’s power to vote in the Committee of the Whole, but not on matters where the vote would represent a decisive participation. Puerto Rican elections are governed by the Federal Election Commission and the State Elections Commission of Puerto Rico. While residing in Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections, but they can vote in primaries. Puerto Ricans who become residents of a U.S. state can vote in presidential elections. As Puerto Rico is not an independent country, it hosts no embassies. It is host, however, to consulates from 41 countries, mainly from the Americas and Europe. Most consulates are located in San Juan. As an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico does not have any first-order administrative divisions as defined by the U.S. government, but has 78 municipalities at the second level. Mona Island is not a municipality, but part of the municipality of Mayagüez. Municipalities are subdivided into wards or barrios, and those into sectors. Each municipality has a mayor and a municipal legislature elected for a four year term. The municipality of San Juan (previously called “town”), was founded first, in 1521, San Germán in 1570, Coamo in 1579, Arecibo in 1614, Aguada in 1692 and Ponce in 1692. An increase of settlement saw the founding of 30 municipalities in the 18th century and 34 in the 19th. Six were founded in the 20th century; the last was Florida in 1971. From 1952 to 2007, Puerto Rico had three political parties which stood for three distinct future political scenarios. The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) seeks to maintain the island’s “association” status as a commonwealth, improved commonwealth and/or seek a true free sovereign-association status or Free Associated Republic, and has won a plurality vote in referendums on the island’s status held over six decades after the island was invaded by the U.S. The New Progressive Party (PNP) seeks statehood. The Puerto Rican Independence Party seeks independence. In 2007, a fourth party, the Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico Party (PPR), was registered. The PPR claims that it seeks to address the islands’ problems from a status-neutral platform. It ceased to remain a registered political party when it failed to obtain the requisite number of votes in the 2008 general election to remain so. Non-registered parties include the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, the Socialist Workers Movement, the Hostosian National Independence Movement, and others. Political status – The nature of Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the U.S. is the subject of ongoing debate in Puerto Rico, the United States Congress, and the United Nations. Specifically, the basic question is whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. territory, become a U.S. state, or become an independent country. Estado Libre Asociado – In 1950, the U.S. Congress granted Puerto Ricans the right to organize a constitutional convention via a referendum that gave them the option of voting their preference, “yes” or “no”, on a proposed U.S. law that would organize Puerto Rico as a “commonwealth” that would continue United States sovereignty over Puerto Rico and its people. Puerto Rico’s electorate expressed its support for this measure in 1951 with a second referendum to ratify the constitution. The Constitution of Puerto Rico was formally adopted on July 3, 1952. The Constitutional Convention specified the name by which the body politic would be known. The purpose of Congress in the 1950 and 1952 legislation was to accord to Puerto Rico the degree of autonomy and independence normally associated with a State of the Union. On February 4, 1952, the convention approved Resolution 22 which chose in English the word Commonwealth, meaning a “politically organized community” or “state”, which is simultaneously connected by a compact or treaty to another political system. Puerto Rico officially designates itself with the term “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico” in its constitution, as a translation into English of the term to “Estado Libre Asociado” (ELA). Literally translated into English the phrase Estado Libre Asociado means “Associated Free State.” The preamble of the Commonwealth constitution in part reads: “We, the people of Puerto Rico, in order to organise ourselves politically on a fully democratic basis, …do ordain and establish this Constitution for the commonwealth which, in the exercise of our natural rights, we now create within our union with the United States of America. In so doing, we declare: … We consider as determining factors in our life our citizenship of the United States of America and our aspiration continually to enrich our democratic heritage in the individual and collective enjoyment of its rights and privileges; our loyalty to the principles of the Federal Constitution;… While the approval of the commonwealth constitution by the people of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. President, as a federal law, marked a historic change in the civil government for the islands, neither it nor the public laws approved by Congress in 1950 and 1952 revoked statutory provisions concerning the legal relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States. This relationship is based on the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The statutory provisions that set forth the conditions of the relationship are commonly referred to as the Federal Relations Act (FRA). Inclusive by Resolution number 34, approved by the Constitutional Convention and ratified in the Referendum held on November 4, 1952, the following new sentence was added to section 3 of article VII of the commonwealth constitution: “Any amendment or revision of this constitution shall be consistent with the resolution enacted by the applicable provisions of the Constitution of the United States, with the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act and with Public Law 600, Eighty-first Congress, adopted in the nature of a compact”. The provisions of the Federal Relations Act as codified on the U.S. Code Title 48, Chapter 4 shall apply to the island of Puerto Rico and to the adjacent islands belonging to the United States and waters of those islands; and the name Puerto Rico, as used in the chapter, shall be held to include not only the island of that name, but all the adjacent islands as aforesaid. While specified subsections of the FRA were “adopted in the nature of a compact”, other provisions, by comparison, are excluded from the compact reference. Matters still subject to congressional authority and established pursuant to legislation include the citizenship status of residents, tax provisions, civil rights, trade and commerce, public finance, the administration of public lands controlled by the federal government, the application of federal law over navigable waters, congressional representation, and the judicial process, among others.
In 1967, Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly polled the political preferences of the Puerto Rican electorate by passing a plebiscite act that provided for a vote on the status of Puerto Rico. This constituted the first plebiscite by the Legislature for a choice among three status options (commonwealth, statehood, and independence). Claiming “foul play” and dubbing the process as illegitimate and contrary to norms of international law regarding decolonization procedures, the plebiscite was boycotted by the major pro-statehood and pro-independence parties of the time, the Republican Party of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican Independence Party, respectively. The Commonwealth option, represented by the PDP, won with a majority of 60.4% of the votes. After the plebiscite, efforts in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s to enact legislation to address the status issue died in U.S. Congressional committees. In subsequent plebiscites organized by Puerto Rico held in 1993 and 1998 (without any formal commitment on the part of the U.S. Government to honor the results), the current political status failed to receive majority support (receiving 48.6% in 1993 and only 0.3% in 1998), while the “none of the above” option, which was the Popular Democratic Party sponsored choice, was the winning option with 50.3% of the votes. Disputes arose as to the definition of each of the ballot alternatives, and Commonwealth advocates, among others, reportedly urged a vote for “none of the above”. Within the United States – Puerto Rico is an “unincorporated territory” of the United States which according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Insular Cases is “a territory appurtenant and belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States.” However, President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status issued a report on March 11, 2011. which suggests that the task force considers Puerto Rico is already a part of the United States, notwithstanding the 111 year-old Downes case. At p. 28, the Report suggests a two-plebiscite process, including a “first plebiscite that requires the people of Puerto Rico to choose whether they wish to be part of the United States (either via Statehood or Commonwealth) or wish to be independent (via Independence or Free Association). If continuing to be part of the United States were chosen in the first plebiscite, a second vote would be taken between Statehood and Commonweath.” The Report language suggests that the Obama believes that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States and that a vote for Commonwealth would allow Puerto Rico to “continue” in that relationship. The report clarify, consistent with the legal conclusions reached by prior Task Force reports, that the proposals for enhanced Commonwealth remains constitutionally problematic and that under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Constitutionally, Puerto Rico is subject to the Congress’ plenary powers under the territorial clause of Article IV, sec. 3, of the U.S. Constitution. U.S. federal law applies to Puerto Rico, even though Puerto Rico is not a state of the American Union and has no voting representative in the U.S. Congress. Because of the establishment of the Federal Relations Act of 1950, all federal laws that are “not locally inapplicable” are automatically the law of the land in Puerto Rico. Following the 1950 and 1952 legislation, only two district court decisions have held that a particular federal law, which does not specifically exclude or treat Puerto Rico differently, is inapplicable to Puerto Rico. The more recent decision was vacated on appeal. Efrén Rivera Ramos, Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law, clarified the meaning of plenary powers, explaining, “The government of a state derives its powers from the people of the state, whereas the government of a territory owes its existence wholly to the United States. The Court thus seems to equate plenary power to exclusive power. The U.S. government could exert over the territory power that it could not exercise over the states.” Ramos quotes Justice Harlan, writing in Grafton v. United States, 206 U.S. 333 (1907), “The jurisdiction and authority of the United States over that territory referring to the Philippines and its inhabitants, for all legitimate purposes of government is paramount,”. Ramos then goes on to argue “This power, however, is not absolute, for it is restrained by some then-undefined fundamental rights possessed by anyone subject to the authority of the U.S. government.” Since 1917, people born in Puerto Rico have been given U.S. citizenship. United States citizens residing in Puerto Rico, whether born there or not, are not residents of a state or the District of Columbia and, therefore, do not qualify to vote, personally or through an absentee ballot, in federal elections. See also: “Voting rights in Puerto Rico”. Under the Constitution of Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico designates itself with the term Commonwealth and Puerto Ricans have a degree of administrative autonomy similar to citizens of a U.S. state and like the States, it has a republican form of government, organized pursuant to a constitution adopted by its people, and a bill of rights. The U.S. congressionally approved Constitution goes into effect in 1952. In addition, like the States, Puerto Rico lacks “the full sovereignty of an independent nation,” for example, the power to manage its “external relations with other nations,” which was retained by the Federal Government. Puerto Ricans “were collectively made U.S. citizens” in 1917 as a result of the Jones-Shafroth Act.
The act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on March 2 1917. U.S. Federal law 8 U.S.C. § 1402, approved by President Harry S. Truman on June 27 1952, declared all persons born in Puerto Rico on or after January 13 1941 to be U.S. citizens at birth and all persons born in Puerto Rico between April 11 1899 and January 12 1941, and meeting certain other technical requirements, and not citizens of the United States under any other Act, are declared to be citizens of the U.S. as of January 13 1941. In addition, an April 2000 report by the Congressional Research Service, asserts that citizens born in Puerto Rico are legally defined as natural born citizens and are therefore eligible to be elected President, provided they meet qualifications of age and 14 years residence within the United States. According to this report, residence in Puerto Rico and U.S. territories and possessions does not qualify as residence within the United States for these purposes. Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory (see above) and not a U.S. state, the United States Constitution does not fully enfranchise US citizens residing in Puerto Rico. Only the “fundamental rights” under the federal constitution apply to Puerto Rico, including the Privileges and Immunities Clause (U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 2, Clause 1, also known as the Comity Clause) that prevents a state from treating citizens of other states in a discriminatory manner, with regard to basic civil rights. The clause also embraces a right to travel, so that a citizen of one state can have privileges and immunities in any other state; this constitutional clause regarding the rights, privileges, and immunities of citizens of the United States was expressly extended to Puerto Rico by the U.S. Congress through the federal law 48 U.S.C. § 737 and signed by President Truman in 1947. Other fundamental rights such as the due process clause and the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment were expressly extended to Puerto Rico by the U.S. Supreme court. In a brief concurrence in the judgment of Torres v. Puerto Rico, 442 U.S. 465 (1979), Supreme Court Justice Brennan argued that any implicit limits from the Insular Cases on the basic rights granted by the Constitution (including especially the Bill of Rights) were anachronistic in the 1970s. Article Three of the United States Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the federal government. This article was expressly extended to the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico by the U.S. Congress through Federal Law 89-571, 80 Stat. 764, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. After that date, judges appointed to the Puerto Rico federal district court have been Article III judges appointed under the Constitution of the United States. In addition in 1984 one of the judges of the federal district court, Chief Judge Juan R. Torruella, a native of the island, was appointed to serve in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit with jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire. Federal executive branch agencies have significant presence in Puerto Rico, just as in any state, such as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Attorney, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security, National Labor Relations Board, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Safety Authority, Environmental Protection Agency, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Internal Revenue Service, and Social Security Administration. The island’s economic, commercial, and banking systems are integrated to those of the United States. President George H. W. Bush issued a November 30 1992 memorandum to heads of executive departments and agencies establishing the current administrative relationship between the federal government and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. This memorandum directs all federal departments, agencies, and officials to treat Puerto Rico administratively as if it were a state, insofar as doing so would not disrupt federal programs or operations. Puerto Rico does participate in the internal political process of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S., accorded equal-proportional representation in both parties, and delegates from the islands vote in each party’s national convention. The U.S. Government classifies Puerto Rico as an independent taxation authority by Federal Law 48 U.S.C. § 734. Puerto Rico residents are required to pay U.S. federal taxes, import/export taxes, federal commodity taxes, social security taxes etc. Individuals working with the Federal Government pay federal income taxes while the rest of the residents are required to pay federal payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare), as well as Commonwealth of Puerto Rico income taxes. All federal employees, plus those who do business with the federal government, in addition to Puerto Rico-based corporations that intend to send funds to the U.S., and some others also pay federal income taxes. In 2009, Puerto Rico paid $3.742 billion into the US Treasury. Because residents of Puerto Rico pay into Social Security, they are eligible for Social Security benefits upon retirement, but are excluded from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and the island actually receives less than 15% of the Medicaid funding it would normally receive if it were a U.S. state. Yet Medicare providers receive less-than-full state-like reimbursements for services rendered to beneficiaries in Puerto Rico, even though the latter paid fully into the system. Since 1961 several Puerto Ricans have been appointed by the President, upon the advice and consent of the Senate to serve as United States Ambassadors to Venezuela, Spain, Costa Rica, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and the Republics of Mauritius and Seychelles. A Puerto Rican was also appointed by President Obama as ambassador to El Salvador. Pending the advice and consent of the United States Senate, the President issued a recess appointment so that the Ambassador could assume her post. As embassies fall within the Department of State, ambassadors answer to the Secretary of State. Puerto Ricans may enlist in the U.S. military. Since 1917 Puerto Ricans have been included in the compulsory draft whenever it has been in effect and more than 400,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the United States Armed Forces. Puerto Ricans have participated in all U.S. wars since 1898, most notably World War I, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the current Middle Eastern conflicts. Several Puerto Ricans became notable commanders, five have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States, and several Puerto Ricans have attained the rank of General or Admiral, which requires a Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, as is the case of judges and ambassadors. In World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War Puerto Ricans were the most decorated Hispanic soldiers and in some cases were the first to die in combat.
On November 27, 1953, shortly after the establishment of the Commonwealth, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved Resolution 748, removing Puerto Rico’s classification as a non-self-governing territory under article 73(e) of the Charter from UN. But the General Assembly did not apply the full list of criteria which was enunciated in 1960 when it took favorable note of the cessation of transmission of information regarding the non-selfgoverning status of Puerto Rico. According to the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Political Status in its December 21, 2007 report, the U.S., in its written submission to the UN in 1953, never represented that Congress could not change its relationship with Puerto Rico without the territory’s consent. It stated that the U.S. Justice Department in 1959 reiterated that Congress held power over Puerto Rico pursuant to the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In 1993, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stated that Congress may unilaterally repeal the Puerto Rican Constitution or the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act and replace them with any rules or regulations of its choice. In a 1996 report on a Puerto Rico status political bill, the U.S. House Committee on Resources stated, “Puerto Rico’s current status does not meet the criteria for any of the options for full self-government under Resolution 1541″ (the three established forms of full self-government being stated in the report as (1) national independence, (2) free association based on separate sovereignty, or (3) full integration with another nation on the basis of equality). The report concluded that Puerto Rico “… remains an unincorporated territory and does not have the status of ‘free association’ with the United States as that status is defined under United States law or international practice”, that the establishment of local self-government with the consent of the people can be unilaterally revoked by the U.S. Congress, and that U.S. Congress can also withdraw the U.S. citizenship of Puerto Rican residents of Puerto Rico at any time, for a legitimate Federal purpose. The application of the U.S. Constitution to Puerto Rico is limited by the Insular Cases.
In 2005 and 2007, two reports were issued by the U.S. President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. Both reports conclude that Puerto Rico continues to be a territory of U.S. under the plenary powers of the U.S. Congress. Reactions from Puerto Rico’s two major political parties were mixed. The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) challenged the task force’s report and committed to validating the current status in all international forums, including the United Nations. It also rejected any “colonial or territorial status” as a status option, and vowed to keep working for the enhanced Commonwealth status that was approved by the PPD in 1998, which included sovereignty, an association based on “respect and dignity between both nations”, and common citizenship. The New Progressive Party (PNP) supported the White House Report’s conclusions and supported bills to provide for a democratic referendum process among Puerto Rico voters. According to a CRS report, the recent activity regarding Puerto Rico’s political status, in Congress and on the island, suggests that action may be taken in the 111th Congress. The reports issued in 2007 and 2005 by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status may be the basis for reconsideration of the existing commonwealth status, as legislative developments during the 109th and 110th Congresses suggested. Agreement on the process to be used in considering the status proposals has been as elusive as agreement on the end result. Congress would have a determinative role in any resolution of the issue. The four options that appear to be most frequently discussed include continuation of the commonwealth, modification of the current commonwealth agreement, statehood, or independence. If independence, or separate national sovereignty, were selected, Puerto Rican officials might seek to negotiate a compact of free association with the United States. On June 15, 2009, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization approved a draft resolution calling on the Government of the United States to expedite a process that would allow the Puerto Rican people to exercise fully their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.
On April 29, 2010, the U.S. Congress voted 223–169 to approve a measure for a federally sanctioned process for Puerto Rico’s self determination, allowing Puerto Rico to set a new referendum on whether to continue its present form of commonwealth political status or to have a different political status. If Puerto Ricans vote to continue to have their present form of political status, the Government of Puerto Rico is authorized to conduct additional plebiscites at intervals of every eight years from the date on which the results of the prior plebiscite are certified; if Puerto Ricans vote to have a different political status, a second referendum would determine whether Puerto Rico would become a U.S. state, an independent country, or a sovereign nation associated with the U.S. that would not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution. During the House debate, a fourth option, to retain its present form of commonwealth (status quo) political status, was added as an option in the second plebiscite. Immediately following U.S. House of the U.S. Congress passage, H.R. 2499 was sent to the U.S. Senate, where it was given two formal readings and referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. A Senate hearing was held on May 19, 2010, for the purpose of gathering testimony on the bill. Among those offering testimony were Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi; Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño; President of the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, Héctor Ferrer; and President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, Rubén Berríos. The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Ranking Member Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) formally requested the White House to share President’s position regarding The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010 (H.R. 2499) and constitutionally-viable status alternatives in a letter dated May 27 following a hearing on the legislation. The Senators requested the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status clarify the White House position on the issue. According to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee leadership, the four options are the continuation of the current commonwealth status, subject to the territorial clause (under Article IV of the Constitution), statehood, independence, and free association. “Efforts to address Puerto Rico’s political status have been hampered by a failure of the federal government to clearly define these status options and that failure has undermined Puerto Rico’s efforts to accurately assess the views of the voters,” the letter stated. “In recent years, however, a consistent administration and congressional view has emerged that only four status options are available for Puerto Rico’s future relations with the United States.” Bingaman and Murkowski wrote that “this analysis of the status options favored by the principal political parties in Puerto Rico concludes that a fifth option, ‘New Commonwealth,’ is incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws of the United States in several respects,” according to the analysis and conclusion of the U.S. Department of Justice under the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Absent a White House response to the Senate’s request, the Senate did not act on H.R. 2499. The latest Task Force report was released on March 11, 2011; The Task Force recommends related to the status that all relevant parties—the President, Congress, and the leadership and people of Puerto Rico—work to ensure that Puerto Ricans are able to express their will about status options and have that will acted upon by the end of 2012 or soon thereafter. If efforts on the Island do not provide a clear result in the short term, the President should support, and Congress should enact, self-executing legislation that specifies in advance for the people of Puerto Rico a set of acceptable status options that the United States is politically committed to fulfilling. This legislation should commit the United States to honor the choice of Puerto Rico (provided it is one of the status options specified in the legislation) and should specify the means by which such a choice would be made. The Task Force recommends that, by the end of 2012, the Administration develop, draft, and work with Congress to enact the proposed legislation. The Task Force believes that the time to act is now, and recommends that, if there is no decisive result by a plebiscite this summer, the Administration, Congress, and stakeholders in Puerto Rico work as rapidly as possible to develop the legislation contemplated by the Task Force. The Task Force therefore recommends that, by the end of 2012, the Administration develop, draft, and work with Congress to enact the proposed legislation.