The Unfinished Debate on the Political Status of Puerto Rico and its Relationship with the United States
Written by Norberto Muniz Muniz, J.D., L.L.M. in National Security Candidate, Georgetown Law. Certificate in International Human Rights, Certificate in Legal English
The issue of the political status of Puerto Rico has never been without controversy. Even since 1952, when the United States government agreed to the imposition on Puerto Rico of what is now known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico through the approval of Law 600 by Congress, the matter has been part of the discussion. Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950 (Pub.L. 81–600), Act of the 81st Congress of the United States. In recent years the political status of Puerto Rico has been met with great attention in the local and US public discussion. This is because of a number of factors, including (1) the US Congress in 2016 approving the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) (Pub. L. 114-187), bankruptcy law, and (2) several natural disasters occurring on the island, such as Hurricane María and constant earthquakes.
Recently, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) co-wrote the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020. HR 8113- Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020, 116th Congress (2019) – (2020). In short, this bill sought to recognize Puerto Rico’s right to create a status convention so that Puerto Ricans could exercise the right to self-determination in a process that would be binding on the United States. This bill recognized an inherent power of the Legislative Branch of Puerto Rico to call a status convention composed of Puerto Rican delegates to propose an option to Puerto Rico’s people of self-determination. It also ordered that the body be semi-permanent because it would be dissolved only when the United States ratified a self-determination option presented to Congress by that status convention. The project requires the creation of a congressional bilateral negotiation commission, including representation from the Committee on Natural Resources of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources of the Senate and of the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico. Finally, the option of self-determination, which must be outside the United States Constitution’s territorial clause, must be voted on through a referendum by the residents of Puerto Rico. However, the proposed project did not advance in the legislative process, in part due to the proximity of the presidential and congressional elections.
At the local level in Puerto Rico, the Legislative Branch approved a law that authorized a status plebiscite consultation during the November 2020 elections. This plebiscite was the first plebiscite that only had statehood as a status option. In this status consultation, statehood for Puerto Rico obtained 52.52% of the votes. The remaining voters disagreed with statehood as a political status option for Puerto Rico. It is important to note that the results of all these plebiscites have not prompted Congress to take action to resolve the political status of Puerto Rico and its relationship with the United States. People and the press commented that the United States government did not take action on the island’s political status and, as a result, the status quo prevailed.
Despite the initiatives that have recently been proposed at both the local and federal levels to address the political status of Puerto Rico, if the desire of Puerto Ricans is to be admitted as a state to carry out the process of self-determination of the island, the approval of the United States Congress is indispensable. This is because Clause 3 of Article IV of the United States Constitution establishes that “[n]ew states may be admitted by the Congress into this union […].” So the power to admit new states is a power reserved to Congress, but then the Executive has to give its approval through the signature of the President like any other law. The last time this happened was when in 1959 when Congress admitted Hawaii as the 50th state of the union.
Certainly, the situation of Hawaii and Puerto Rico has some similarities. For example, they are not within the continental United States and are likely to have another official language in addition to English, among other similarities. However, there are significant differences regarding the current situation in Puerto Rico and when the United States admitted Hawaii as part of the union. For example, more than 90% of Hawaiians voted in favor of belonging to the union, while in Puerto Rico, based on the last elections’ plebiscite, only 52.52% of Puerto Ricans were in favor of statehood. Furthermore, Hawaii’s economic situation was very different from that of Puerto Rico since the latter has been in a financial crisis for more than a decade. This caused Congress to approve PROMESA in 2016 to allow Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy, which can only occur under the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution and not as a state of the union. Therefore, these and other differences have been a stumbling block to advance the request of some statesmen sectors on the island that support statehood.
Another of the barriers that Puerto Rico has faced in the discussion to be admitted as a state is over the congressional seats that should be granted to the island. If the island is admitted as a state of the union, it would have to be granted two seats in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, in the U.S. House of Representatives, it is estimated that Puerto Rico could have up to five seats of representatives based on the 2010 census. The 2020 census should be reassessed if this estimate remains the same or is reduced, since it is not a secret that many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the states in the last decade.
Thus, the number of congressional seats has generated much debate regarding the political status of Puerto Rico. On the one hand, Democrats bet that Puerto Ricans would be inclined to vote for the Democratic Party. This is because there is a greater tendency for Puerto Ricans residing in the states to vote for the Democratic Party. That was one of the reasons then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would support a fair and binding process in which Puerto Ricans can determine the political status of the island. Even Biden supported statehood for Puerto Rico during his campaign if Puerto Ricans decided that this was the status option they wanted for the island.
Meanwhile, Republicans have been inclined not to support statehood because they believe they will lose those representative seats to Puerto Rico if the island is admitted as a state of the union. Former Republican President Trump said in an interview with Fox News that “[a] lot of Puerto Ricans don’t want statehood. They’re doing better the way it has now, frankly.” Similarly, the former majority leader of the Republican Senate, Mitch McConnell, has stated that granting statehood to Puerto Rico would grant two additional senators to the Democratic Party. Therefore, although it could be speculative which party the congressmen of Puerto Rico would belong to if it is admitted as a state, it is an interesting discussion that is part of the equation that the political class in Washington, D.C. does not ignore.
In conclusion, plebiscites as consultations for the self-determination of the peoples are always important. Still, the truth is that the referendum of November 2020 has not been without controversy, in part due to the narrow margin regarding the percentage of votes it obtained statehood. In addition, it has also been the subject of controversy because it did not include other status options, nor did it obtain approval from the United States Congress. Of course, many other factors have influenced Puerto Rico’s political status, including which party in the United States would politically benefit from granting statehood to Puerto Rico.