Photograph by Gabriella N. Báez
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In 2017, students from the University of Puerto Rico went on strike to protest steep cuts made to the public university's budget as a result of the island's protracted financial crisis. Today, some activists are pushing for U.S. statehood to help stabilize the local economy.

Photograph by Gabriella N. Báez

Why Puerto Rico has debated U.S. statehood since its colonization

This territory in the Caribbean has been fighting for autonomy and full citizenship rights for more than a century.

Located about a thousand miles from Florida in the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico is a United States territory—but it's not a state. U.S. citizens who reside on the island are subject to federal laws, but can't vote in presidential elections. Why? The answer lies in the island's long colonial history—one that arguably continues to this day.

Puerto Rico had been a Spanish colony since the 16th century, but hundreds of years of repression, taxation, and poverty took their toll. By the 19th century, an independence movement sprang up on the island. Though Spanish forces quickly quelled an armed insurrection in 1868, the country tried to diffuse tensions by allowing the island more independence.

But a few decades of relative autonomy came to a halt in 1898, when the United States declared war on Spain—ostensibly to liberate Cuba from colonial rule. On July 25, 1898, U.S. forces invaded Puerto Rico and occupied it during the ensuing months of the Spanish-American War. As part of the peace treaty in December 1898, the colony was transferred to the U.S. and a military government took over. (How yellow journalism helped spark the Spanish-American War.)

Puerto Ricans continued to call for autonomy. In 1900, the Foraker Act established a civilian government—but stopped short of conferring full rights on Puerto Ricans. As legal scholar José A. Cabranes explains, white American legislators thought granting statehood to Puerto Rico would force the United States to admit the Philippines, which was another U.S. territory at the time, as well asendanger the interests of white laborers and farmers, and increase racial mixing within the U.S. Instead, they granted Puerto Rico “unorganized territory” status and offered Puerto Ricans limited self-governance without U.S. citizenship.

In 1917, that changed with the Jones-Shafroth Act. Seeking to address ongoing tensions on the island, Congress passed the law which gave most Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, but allowed the U.S. president and Congress to veto Puerto Rican laws. As citizens, Puerto Ricans also became subject to the newly enacted Selective Service Act, which led to the conscription of nearly 20,000 Puerto Rican men in World War I.

But it wasn’t until the Nationality Act of 1940 that all people born in Puerto Rico were designated citizens by birthright regardless of their parentage.

Then, in 1950 the United States gave the territory permission to draft its own constitution, provided it didn’t change Puerto Rico’s territorial status. In response, Puerto Rico held a constitutional convention, establishing its own republican form of government and bill of rights.

In 1952, Puerto Rico adopted the official name of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and a new constitution. Since then, there’s been an ongoing debate about what “commonwealth” means. Some scholars and policymakers contend the term is a mere moniker, as in the state names of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. Others say it gives Puerto Rico a special status as a new kind of legal entity that renders it neither a territory nor a state.

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San Juan's famous Capitol building was built in the early 1900s to house the island's newly formed civilian government. It is seen as a symbol of Puerto Rican self-governance.

Either way, Puerto Ricans lack some of the key rights of mainland Americans. They send delegates to presidential nominating conventions, but they can’t cast electoral votes in the general election. They are subject to federal laws, but lack voting representation in Congress: Though the Puerto Rican delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives may serve on committees and introduce bills, they cannot vote. Meanwhile, residents of Puerto Rico do still contribute to Social Security and Medicare. (See vintage pictures of life in Puerto Rico 100 years ago.)

But a contingent of scholars and policymakers believe that Puerto Ricans are not full U.S. citizens due to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which declares that all people born or naturalized in the U.S., or subject to its jurisdiction, are citizens. Since the territory isn’t technically in the U.S., proponents of the constitutional theory believe Puerto Rican-born citizens aren’t subject to the clause. Opponents say that while Puerto Rican-born citizens lack citizenship status on a constitutional basis, they received it on a statutory basis from the Nationality Act.

Despite a modern statehood movement—which includes an attempt to gain recognition from Congress, and an upcoming statehood referendum in November—it seems unlikely that Puerto Rico will become a state any time soon. In a 2017 Morning Consult poll, only 54 percent of mainland Americans knew Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and the United States has resisted calls from the United Nations to fully decolonize its territory. Past referenda on the subject of statehood have also been highly contested. he most recent, in 2017, delivered a non-binding result that favored statehood, but turnout was just 23 percent—in a nation that averages about 80 percent turnout—and there were questions about the election’s validity.

The idea of statehood remains divisive in a territory that has long bristled at the decisions of the nation that claimed it in 1898. “Puerto Ricans never asked to be colonized, never asked to be denied their Puerto Rican citizenship and never asked to have U.S. citizenship imposed on them,” writes legal professor Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán for the Washington Post. “They are colonial subjects of the United States.”

For Puerto Rico to become a state, it will need the support of U.S. citizens on the island and off. Until then, it will continue to be a little understood territory with a contentious history.