I was born in the states but grew up for many years in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where my ancestors originated. Congress annexed the territory of Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898 and declared its residents, and anyone henceforward born there, American citizens in 1917.
Puerto Rico has never been a sovereign country. It has never had the power to trade independently with other countries. There has never been an internationally recognized Puerto Rican citizenship, visa, passport, etc. The relevant portion of the US Constitution which speaks on PR’s status states:
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
Recently, constitutioncenter.org posted a detailed blog on the status issue, which mentions a recent judicial controversy concerning whether US constitutional guarantees against double-jeopardy–being judged twice for the same crime–apply to Puerto Rico. If Puerto Rico had been sovereign, it wouldn’t have applied and a criminal could have been retried. But the Supreme Court judged that Puerto Rico is not sovereign and that the federal fiat to create a territorial Constitution did not represent a transfer of sovereignty to the people of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is still the property of Congress, in other words. The pro-Commonwealth leaders on the island, on the other hand, for generations have been selling the status as a pact between two peoples or two nations. Which it is not: just like medieval royalty, Congress can unilaterally make decisions regarding Puerto Rico without input from its subjects, and indeed does so all the time.
The above-mentioned blog includes a link to a letter written by the (pro-Commonwealth) governor of Puerto Rico to the United Nations, where he feigns surprise at the recent recognition of the territory’s colonial status by both the US and the United Nations, which now once again places Puerto Rico on an international watch-list of places that need to be decolonized. Clearly, the governor lives in a bubble–although one must ask: why now? why does the US now acknowledge the status as a problem that must be solved, and placed on a global colonial to-do list?
When Congress in the 1950’s gave the fiat for Puerto Rico to draft its own Constitution and become a Commonwealth, it did not grant independence or statehood, although the process was similar to how a state enters the union by having its state constitution ratified by both the people and Congress. The fiat merely represented a delegation of power, but power emanated from Congress and is still retained there. The colonial nature of the relationship changed, but it was still colonial. Puerto Rico is still property and, in theory, if Congress members decided to take away the century-old US citizenship of Puerto Ricans, they could. It would be a huge and messy international civil rights catastrophe–Puerto Rico’s solders have killed and died for the American dream, its retirees have paid into social security–but in theory it could happen.
In their denial of the islands’ territorial status, the PPD (the party that has traditionally defended the status quo) has lived in a bubble for many generations, and the governor’s indignant letter should be no surprise. He’s coming to terms with what the rest of the world knows: Puerto Rico is a territory. It is the property of the Congress of the United States, it is literally loot from the Spanish-American War.
But now, many politicians within the (soon to be defunct) PPD are starting to come around. Eduardo Bhatia, the President of the PR Senate, has said that it’s time to start preparing people for a status change, and hinting at the desireability of sovereignty. In the 2012 referendum, for the first time the people voted against remaining a territory. What this means is that the commonwealth status no longer enjoys the consent of the governed, and hence has lost moral legitimacy, and the democratic pretensions of the Popular Democratic Party are just that: pretensions.
For the first time in many decades, and certainly as a result of the fiscal crisis, we are beginning to see a fracture in the collective psyche of Puerto Ricans who were comfortably settled in their denial of their second-class status as citizens of another nation, which was also half their own nation but sometimes not really, and which is becoming increasingly and vocally hostile to hispanicity in spite of–or maybe because of–the fact that in about three decades, Hispanics will become the largest demographic in America, and in spite of the fact that many states have Spanish names because the entire southwest and Florida were, initially, well … Latin America.
If the people of Puerto Rico choose independence, they will have faced the prospect of losing their American citizenship with a bravery that most of us lacked … hence we voted with our feet and moved to states, where we can fully enjoy and profit from equal citizenship with all the constitutional guarantees, and no less. If they vote for statehood, it will not have been “the first Hispanic state” as some have said. No, that was probably New Mexico–where Spanish is still co-official–or California, or Texas … or Florida. All of these states were initially Latin American territories.
In all cases, as always, there is no real popular power in the colonial possession and Congress will have to give the last word. But the commonwealth, that “respectable” euphemism for a colony … well, now the dominoes are falling, and it’s in line to go. Won’t miss it.