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An archipelago of the Caribbean located about a thousand miles south of Florida, Puerto Rico has a complex colonial history and political status. It is a United States territory with 3.2 million residents. While Puerto Ricans are subject to U.S. federal laws, they cannot vote in presidential elections and cannot represent themselves in Congress. It is neither a state nor an independent country, because it is a U.S. territory.
Colonialism in Spain
San Juan, Puerto Rico, was bombarded by U.S. Navy warships during the Spanish-American War.
These images were gathered from the Universal History Archive, the Universal Images Group, and Getty Images
The land of Borikén, where Christopher Columbus disembarked on November 19, 1493, was inhabited by native Tanos.
A Spanish explorer named San Juan Bautista claimed the island for Spain and renamed it Puerto Rico. It was governed by Spain for 400 years, experiencing extreme poverty, repression, and taxation.
Fed up Puerto Ricans started revolting in the mid-19th century. In 1868, hundreds of pro-independence Puerto Ricans attempted an uprising in the mountain town of Lares. The rebellion was suppressed by the Spanish military, but marked the beginnings of the national political parties, the abolishment of slavery, and some autonomy for Puerto Rico by Spain.
As a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, ending decades of relative sovereignty. Puerto Rico was occupied by U.S. troops on July 25, 1898. At the end of the war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States by signing the Treaty of Paris in December.
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why hasn’t puerto rico become a state
A military government was established under the United States, and it ruled the territory until a civilian government was established under the Foraker Act on April 12, 1900. While the U.S. government was expanding mainly westward and southward on the American continent before the 20th century, Puerto Rico was deemed an “unincorporated territory” and granted statehood.
The professor of legal history at Columbia Law School says some American legislators feared that if Puerto Rico were admitted as a state, white Americans in the contiguous states would mix with non-white Puerto Ricans. Under a U.S.-appointed governor, Puerto Ricans had limited self-government, and were not citizens of the United States.
The U.S. passed the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917, which gave most Puerto Ricans American citizenship, but with certain restrictions. Pro-independence movements continued to call for autonomy on the island. Although the act established a senate and a bill of rights, the U.S. president and Congress had the power to veto Puerto Rican legislation. Men in the United States—including Puerto Rico—were required to register for military service under the Selective Service Act. Puerto Ricans fought on behalf of the United States during World War I, with nearly 20,000 participating.
More than three decades later, in 1950, the United States allowed Puerto Rico to draft a constitution, provided it did not alter its territorial status and established a republican government with a bill of rights and a republican form of government. The new constitution was approved by the president and Congress in 1952 after a constitutional convention was held by the Puerto Rican Legislature to draft the new constitution. Under the new constitution, Puerto Rico became the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The Commonwealth versus the Free Associated States
It has been decades since Puerto Rico was designated a commonwealth, but there is still confusion about what it actually means. Early adopters thought it would grant Puerto Rico a legal status other than that of a state or independent country. It was assumed that the island was no longer a colony since it was governed by elected self-government and had a constitution. However, Ponsa-Kraus and other constitutional scholars argue that because the U.S. Congress has control over Puerto Rico’s government, it remains an American colony even though it is part of the Commonwealth.
In Spanish, Puerto Rico is referred to as the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico, rather than Puerto Rico, which translates to a free associated state. The status of Puerto Rico is further complicated by the fact that its official name differs from its English name. A free associated state is an independent country that has enhanced its association with another state through a treaty, according to international law. Puerto Rico is also not an independent country, but rather a U.S. territory, so this is also a misnomer.
Future of Puerto Rico
Decolonization has been a major goal for the people of Puerto Rico for hundreds of years. The best way to resolve this issue has been divided for years: statehood, enhanced commonwealth status (where Puerto Rico is still in close contact with the United States but has greater autonomy) or independence.
In order for Puerto Rico to become a state, Ponsa-Kraus explained that it only takes a few steps: in order to become a state, the territory must adopt a constitution, Congress must approve it (and may impose additional conditions on the territory to ensure it is harmonious with the larger federalist structure of the United States), and Congress must pass legislation to admit the territory to statehood. A territory can also be provided with independence by Congress through simple legislation, but politics complicates the process.
A nonbinding referendum on statehood was held in November 2020, with 53 percent of Puerto Ricans in favor and 47 percent against. But only 55 percent voted. As a result of the referendums, proponents of statehood saw the results as proof that the majority of Puerto Ricans support the territory’s admission, but opponents questioned their validity because referendums are unbinding, often promoted only by pro-statehood parties, and include only half of Puerto Rican opinion. There is a belief that if Puerto Rico becomes a state, it will assimilate into the United States.
From a legal perspective, it’s pretty straightforward, Ponsa-Kraus says. “The battle is whether to convince people they should want statehood or oppose it.”
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