Puerto Rico- what an interesting place it holds in American History! How did it’s Commonwealth Status with the United States come to be? What does it mean to be a commonwealth? And why is it confusing for many to understand how this relationship works?
There is no doubt that The United States and Puerto Rico sometimes fall into complicated circumstances. There is a lot to learn from the experiences and cultures we share together as a country. That is why it is important for Mainland Citizens to “Vacation on Our Island,” and to see that there is much more to the Island than just a political connection. There is a world of beauty different than anything on the Mainland United States, yet there is also something that feels very “American,” about the Island. Maybe that’s because it is America!
Puerto Rico, which is Spanish for “Rich Port” is also officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico – Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, lit, which translates to the “Free Associated State of Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the northeast, where the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet. It is approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) southeast of Miami, Florida. Puerto Rico’s rich history, tropical climate, beautiful scenery, traditional cuisine, and tax incentives make the Island an enticing destination travelers from around the world.
Puerto Rico is an archipelago among the Greater Antilles. Included in this chain is the main island of Puerto Rico, Mona, Desecheo, Culebra, and Vieques. The capital and most populous city on the Island is San Juan. The official languages are Spanish and English, though Spanish predominates. The island’s population was approximately 3.4 million in 2016 but has since been in decline. After Hurricane Maria, about 200,000 people left the Island by November 2017.
Our last blog talked about the pre-colonialization of Puerto Rico by the indigenous Taíno. The island was then claimed in 1493 by Christopher Columbus for Spain during his second voyage. It would also endure invasion attempts from the French, Dutch, and British. The Spanish colonial government influenced the island’s cultural landscapes for nearly four centuries, with waves of African slaves, Canarian, and Andalusian settlers. In 1898, the United States acquired Puerto Rico following the Spanish American war, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. This treaty took effect on April 11, 1899.
Puerto Ricans are by law citizens of the United States. Residents may move freely between the island and the mainland. However, since it is not a state, Puerto Rico does not have a vote in the United States Congress. The Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950, was enacted to enable the people of Puerto Rico to organize a government of their own. This act has served as the organic law for the government of Puerto Rico and its relation with the United States for the past 78 years.
Puerto Rico has one non-voting member of the House called a “Resident Commissioner.” As residents of a U.S. territory, the American citizens in Puerto Rico do not have the right to vote for president and vice president of the United States. Puerto Rican residents do not pay federal income tax on Puerto Rican income, and like other territories and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico does not have U.S. senators. In 1952, Congress approved the U.S. citizens living in the territory to elect a governor.
Puerto Rico’s political status has been in constant question since the United States acquired the Island 119 years ago. In 2012, a referendum showed a majority (54% of those who voted) disagreed with “the present form of territorial status.” The next question asked was if “Full Statehood was preferred,” among those who voted. A significant number of people left that answer blank, leaving the second question of the referendum “undecided.”
Recently, a fifth referendum was held on June 11, 2017, with “Statehood,” “Independence/Free Association,” and “Current Territorial Status” initially as the only available choices. The referendum showed there was overwhelming support for statehood, with 97.18% voting for it. However, the voter turnout had a historically low figure of only 22.99% of the registered voters casting their ballots.
Since 1953, the UN has been helping to establish the identity and considering the political status of Puerto Rico and how to assist in helping to achieve “independence” or “decolonization.” In 1978, the Special Committee determined that there was a “colonial relationship” between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization refers to Puerto Rico as a “nation.” And internationally, the people of Puerto Rico are often considered to be a Caribbean Nation and have their own national identity. In June 2016, the UN Special Committee called for the United States to create a process which would allow self-determination in Puerto Rico so that the people of Puerto Rico could exercise their right to “self-determination and independence.” In creating a process to expedite independence, the Puerto Rican people would learn to take decisions in a sovereign manner and to address the urgent economic and social needs- including unemployment, marginalization, insolvency, and poverty.
In 2007, the Puerto Rico State Department developed a protocol to issue certificates of Puerto Rican citizenship to “Native Puerto Ricans.” To eligible, an applicant must have been born in Puerto Rico or born outside of Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican–born parent. An American citizen with at least one year of residency in Puerto Rico is also eligible for citizenship, which comes in handy when applying for the many tax incentives offered to do business on the Island.
Overall, Puerto Rico is a fascinating place. Over the years, they have been able to maintain their identity amidst the political and economic struggles they faced. Whether we will ever see the island become a state is still a very “undecided idea.” There is a lot Mainland American Citizens can learn from Puerto Ricans, and vice versa. It is vital that we learn to embrace our connection by continuing to share our cultures positively.
American is truly lucky that Puerto Rico is a significant and beautiful part of the United States.
We can’t wait for you to come down and experience the beauty here and keep coming back year after year.
We will see you soon.
Safe & fun travels!