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, Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents are U.S. citizens. However, while subject to U.S. federal laws, island-based Puerto Ricans can’t vote in presidential elections and lack voting representation in Congress. As a U.S. territory, it is neither a state nor an independent country.

Spanish Colonialism

When Christopher Columbus disembarked on the West Coast of Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493, native Taínos inhabited the land, which they called Borikén. The explorer swiftly 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 experienced extreme levels of poverty, repression and taxation. 

By the mid-19th century, fed-up Puerto Ricans started to revolt. In 1868, hundreds of pro-independence Puerto Ricans attempted an uprising in the mountain town of Lares. While the Spanish military suppressed the rebellion, it marked a turning point for the island. National political parties were born, slavery was abolished and Spain began granting Puerto Rico some autonomy.

But the decades of relative sovereignty ended in 1898 when the United States declared war on Spain. On July 25, 1898, U.S. 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.

Becoming a US 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. Before the 20th century, the U.S. government granted statehood to lands it acquired as it expanded mostly westward and southward on the American continent. However, Puerto Rico was designated an “unincorporated territory.” 

According to Christina D. Ponsa-Kraus, professor of legal history at Columbia Law School, some American legislators feared that racial mixing would occur among white Americans in the contiguous United States and non-white Puerto Ricans if Puerto Rico were admitted as a state. Puerto Ricans were restricted to limited self-governance—under a U.S.-appointed governor—and did not have U.S. citizenship.

Pro-independence movements on the island continued to call for autonomy. To quell tensions, in 1917, the U.S. passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which gave most Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship—but with limitations. Under the act, a senate and bill of rights was established; however, the U.S. president and Congress 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 on behalf of 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 alter its territorial status and established a republican form of government and a bill of rights. After the Legislature of Puerto Rico 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. Free Associated State

Decades after adopting the status of commonwealth, there remains confusion around what the classification means. Early adopters believed the designation would give Puerto Rico a special legal status that wasn't a state, independent country or territory. They surmised that because the island had an elected self-government and a constitution that it was no longer a colony. However, Ponsa-Kraus and other constitutional scholars argue that because the U.S. Congress has power over Puerto Rico’s government, it’s still subordinate to the United States and so effectively remains a colonial territory despite its commonwealth status.

Further complicating the matter of status, the official name of Puerto Rico in Spanish is different from its name in English. In Spanish, the territory is referred to as el Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, which translates to a free associated state. Under international law, a free associated state is an independent country that has enhanced association with another country through a treaty. This is also a misnomer since Puerto Rico is not an independent country but rather a U.S. territory.

Puerto Rico's Future

For hundreds of years, the people of Puerto Rico have fought to decolonize the archipelago. However, there has long been division over the best way to resolve this issue: statehood, enhanced commonwealth status (where Puerto Rico is still in a relationship with the United States but given more autonomy) or independence.

According to Ponsa-Kraus, the legal process to admit Puerto Rico into statehood would require just a few steps: the territory adopts a constitution in preparation for statehood, Congress approves it (and may impose some additional conditions on the state to ensure it’s in harmony with the larger federalist structure of the United States), and then Congress passes legislation admitting the territory into statehood. Likewise, by simple legislation, Congress can provide for the independence of a territory. Despite its constitutional and legal simplicity, politics make the process complex. 

In November 2020, Puerto Ricans voted in a non-binding referendum on statehood. About 53 percent of Puerto Ricans favored statehood, while 47 percent rejected it. However, only 55 percent of Puerto Ricans voted in the referendum. Statehood proponents viewed the results as proof that most Puerto Ricans want the territory to be admitted, but opponents questioned the validity of the votes as referendums are unbinding, often promoted solely by the pro-statehood party and include the opinions of only half of Puerto Ricans. Some people oppose statehood based on the argument that Puerto Rico will assimilate into the United States if it becomes a state.

"Legally speaking, it’s pretty simple," Ponsa-Kraus says. "The battle is over trying to convince people to want statehood or to oppose statehood.”

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