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Island & Status History

Why does Puerto Rico need a process of decolonization?

For more than one hundred years, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States, subject to the sovereignty of Congress under the "Territorial Clause" of the Constitution (Article IV, § 3, clause 2) but denied representation in the federal government. In 1917, the Jones Act extended U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. In 1952, the island became a "Commonwealth," adopting a local Constitution and full local self-government, similar to that of the states. However, these changes did not address Puerto Rico's lack of representation at the federal level: the nearly four million U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico are still subject to federal laws, yet they cannot elect voting representation in Congress or participate in presidential elections. All they have is a "Resident Commissioner," who sits in the House but is not allowed to vote on legislation. For this reason, Puerto Rico's status is colonial: the people of Puerto Rico need a process of decolonization in order to make a transition out of their current colonial status, and into a status of full dignity and equality.

Isn't it true that residents of Puerto Rico don't vote because they don't pay taxes?

Residents of Puerto Rico who are not federal employees, do not pay federal income taxes. They pay all other federal taxes, and they pay local taxes of rates as high as nearly 40%. While one might be tempted to view this as a fair trade-off, it is the position of most Puerto Ricans that an exemption from federal income taxation does not suffice to redress a lack of representation and a colonial status. For that reason, most Puerto Ricans favor a transition out of Puerto Rico's current colonial status.

What are the political parties in Puerto Rico, and what status solution do they advocate?

There are three main political parties in Puerto Rico: the New Progressive Party (NPP) advocates statehood; the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) advocates "enhanced Commonwealth" status (explained below); and the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) advocates independence. Puerto Rico's political parties do not divide along Democratic or Republican lines; instead, they divide based on status preference. Status is the major issue in Puerto Rico's elections, has been throughout the 20th century, and will likely continue to be until Puerto Rico's status problem is resolved. Indeed, in 1989 the leaders of all three political parties in Puerto Rico put aside their differences and approached Congress together to seek a resolution to the status dilemma.

Where do Republicans and Democrats stand on Puerto Rican Self-Determination?

Both parties have expressed their support for Puerto Ricans to exercise their right to decolonization. The following are the appropriate section from the respective 2000 party platforms:

Republican Party

“We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determine. We recognize that Congress has the final authority to define the constitutionally valid options for Puerto Rico to achieve a permanent status with the government by consent and full enfranchisement. As long as Puerto Rico is not a State, however, the will of its people regarding their political status should be ascertained by means of a general right of referendum or specific referenda sponsored by the United States government.”

Democratic Party

“Puerto Rico has been under U.S. sovereignty for over a century and Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, but the island’s ultimate status still has not been determined and its 3.9 million residents still do not have voting representation in their national government. These disenfranchised citizens – who have contributed greatly to our country in war and peace – are entitled to the permanent and fully democratic status of their choice. Democrats will continue to work in the White House and Congress to clarify the options and enable them to chose and to obtain such a status from among all realistic options.”

Didn't the people of Puerto Rico vote to keep the current Commonwealth status?

No. Puerto Ricans have voted for "enhanced Commonwealth" - a status significantly different from the status quo - in two local plebiscites. The breakdown in these plebiscites was as follows: in 1967, 60.11% of the electorate voted for "enhanced Commonwealth," 37.78% voted for statehood, and 0.60% voted for independence. In 1993, 48.58% voted for "enhanced Commonwealth," 46.49% voted for statehood, and 2.54% voted for independence. In a third plebiscite, in 1998, the option that prevailed was "none of the above," with 50.3% of the vote. At that time, 46.49% of the voters chose statehood, 2.54% chose independence, 0.29% chose Free Association, and 0.06% chose Commonwealth status, which was defined as "territorial" rather than "enhanced."

What is "enhanced Commonwealth" status?

Most importantly, it is not the status quo. "Enhanced Commonwealth" status, an option supported by the pro-Commonwealth party of Puerto Rico, is intended to be an improved version of the current status. It seeks to combine the "best of both worlds"-that is, the best features of both statehood and independence, without the burdens of each of those options. Enhanced Commonwealth would include: an end to "territorial" status (the Territorial Clause would no longer apply); permanent union between Puerto Rico and the United States; a permanent guarantee of U.S. citizenship for persons born in Puerto Rico; federal benefits without federal income taxes; a power of the Puerto Rico legislature to enter into international treaties, as if it were an independent country; and a power of the Puerto Rico legislature to exercise a selective veto over federal laws. Under enhanced Commonwealth status, Puerto Rico and the United States would share sovereignty, as Congress does with the states. However, Puerto Rico's special powers would give it greater sovereignty than a state, while U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico would still have no representation at the federal level. It is unlikely that Congress would, or even could, approve such a status.

Why didn't the U.S. Congress respond to the results of the 1967 and 1993 plebiscites?

The U.S. Congress has never spoken with one voice concerning the results of Puerto Rico's plebiscites. Some members of Congress have raised questions about the constitutionality of enhanced Commonwealth status. For instance, the chairmen of two committees and two subcommittees with oversight of Puerto Rico wrote a letter in 1996 stating that the definition of Commonwealth on the 1993 ballot raised constitutional problems. In addition, the House passed decolonization legislation in 1998 (discussed below) which excluded "enhanced Commonwealth," on the reasoning that the "best of both worlds" arrangement is not constitutional and the people must choose between statehood and separate sovereignty. However, the U.S. Senate failed to act and the legislation died at the end of the session. As a result, the U.S. Congress has effectively remained silent on the matter of Puerto Rico's status.

Wasn't the 1998 vote for "none of the above" a vote for the status quo?

It is impossible to say for certain what a vote for "none of the above" means. After the 1998 plebiscite, all sides claimed victory, yet nothing happened simply because the results of the plebiscite provided no mandate. If anything, the 1998 plebiscite is powerful evidence of the need for Congressional decolonization legislation clearly defining the status options.

Why should Congress define the status options?

The choice of an ultimate status option is up to the people of Puerto Rico. However, the voters cannot make an informed decision on status until they know the options and their consequences. So far, all of Puerto Rico's plebiscites have been locally rather than federally enacted, with definitions provided by either the local political parties or the legislature. But only Congress has the answers to crucial questions. For instance, if Puerto Rico chose statehood, would Congress impose English-only requirements? Would federal income taxes apply immediately, or would they be phased in gradually? If Puerto Rico chose enhanced Commonwealth, would Congress implement it? Or would it continue to raise objections to its constitutionality? And if Puerto Rico chose independence, would persons currently holding U.S. citizenship by virtue of birth in Puerto Rico lose their citizenship? Would future generations born in Puerto Rico still acquire U.S. citizenship at birth? Would they be free to travel to or work in the United States? Only Congress can provide the answers to these and other important questions. Without these answers, the people of Puerto Rico cannot make an informed decision regarding their ultimate status. For this reason, Congress must pass decolonization legislation clearly defining the options.

Didn't the U.S. House of Representatives pass decolonization legislation in 1998?

Yes, the House passed H.R. 856, the "U.S.-Puerto Rico Political Status Act" (also known as the "Young Bill") on March 4, 1998 by a vote of 209-208. However, the bill died in the Senate. Even as it failed to take action, the Senate did pass a Unanimous Consent Resolution calling for a resolution to Puerto Rico's status problem.

Didn't some Puerto Ricans oppose H.R. 856?

Yes. In Puerto Rico, both the pro-statehood NPP and the pro-independence PIP supported H.R. 856. However, the PDP opposed the bill because it excluded the "enhanced Commonwealth" option. During hearings on the bill, all of the political parties in Puerto Rico were asked to submit definitions of their preferred status options. However, the drafters of the bill ultimately agreed with the view that the "enhanced Commonwealth" option raises constitutional problems and should not be offered. Instead, the bill offered statehood, independence, and free association as final status options. It also offered the current, territorial Commonwealth status as a transitional option, which would require another plebiscite every ten years. As a result, the PDP, which supports enhanced Commonwealth and believes it to be constitutional, opposed the bill.

What was CEF's position on H.R. 856?

CEF supported H.R. 856. CEF's position is that Puerto Rico's colonial status must come to an end, and that this can only happen with federal decolonization legislation providing for a federal plebiscite with clearly defined status options. This in turn will require Congress to answer numerous questions, including not only whether "enhanced Commonwealth" as defined by the PDP is constitutionally possible, but also whether Congress would be willing to grant statehood to Puerto Rico. Under international law (and Congressional policy), Puerto Rico may choose independence at any time. However, because both enhanced Commonwealth and statehood would involve permanent union with the United States, both Congress and Puerto Rico must agree to accept and implement either one of these options. If it is Congress' conclusion that enhanced Commonwealth is not constitutional, Congress must say so clearly, and that option must not be offered on a plebiscite ballot. Similarly, if Congress is not willing to grant statehood, Congress must say so clearly, and that option must not be offered on a plebiscite ballot. Otherwise, a federally enacted plebiscite would become just another opinion poll without consequences, as has been the case with every status plebiscite in Puerto Rico thus far.


Puerto Rico's current status is listed as commonwealth, a position that does not represent a voice for its citizens.

All political parties reject the current status and Puerto Rico's last local plebiscite illustrated less that 0.06% of the population supports the current status.




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