The House Committee on Natural Resources held hearings on April 14, 2021, on two bills that propose to end Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States: H.R. 1522, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, and H.R. 2070, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021. Under H.R. 1522, Puerto Rico would hold a referendum, with a transition to statehood if the electorate chooses that territorial option. H.R. 2070 does not specify territorial options; instead, delegates elected to a Puerto Rican Status Convention would draft a list of self-determination options, and a referendum would be held for voters to select the preferred option. According to Senator Bob Menendez, a cosponsor of H.R. 2070, the available options include “statehood, independence, a free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.” Both measures would obligate Congress to abide by the Puerto Rican people’s decision on their country’s territorial status.
The hearings signaled a shift in the government’s approach toward Puerto Rico. For the first time, Congress has introduced legislation that excluded the Estado Libre Asociado (“Free Associated State,” commonly known as the Commonwealth) as a territorial option. ELA emerged during the Cold War as a way to refute the Soviet Union’s credible denunciation of the United States as a colonial power. The Truman administration asked Congress in 1950 to vote for Public Law 600 (the enabling legislation for ELA) because, in “view of the importance of ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ in anti-American propaganda,” passage of the bill would have “great value as a symbol of the basic freedom enjoyed by Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rican Governor Luís Muñoz Marín said that ELA “will free both Puerto Ricans and the people of the rest of the states of the malicious accusation of colonialism so constantly wielded against them by Communist groups in Latin America.” After signing PL 600 into law, President Truman triumphantly announced that “full authority and responsibility for local self-government will be vested in the people of Puerto Rico.” ELA was officially established on July 25, 1952, exactly fifty-four years after the day U.S. Army General Nelson A. Miles landed with an invasion force in the coastal town of Guánica during the Spanish–American War.
Yet Puerto Rico’s autonomy was always provisional. Congress did not relinquish its constitutionally delegated powers over the territories. It merely allowed Puerto Ricans to “organize a government pursuant to a constitution of their own adoption.” In fact, Puerto Ricans ratified a constitution that effectively consented to their continued colonial subjugation. For the Truman administration, passage of the Commonwealth bill was of “the greatest importance . . . in order that formal consent of the Puerto Ricans may be given to their present relationship to the United States.” Bluntly put, ELA was an instrument to prove that the colonized formally accepted U.S. colonial rule.
Nonetheless, for seven decades the United States has portrayed ELA as providing Puerto Rico with self-governing powers. As recently as 2011, the President’s Task Force on Status reported that the Commonwealth “has significant local political autonomy” and reported that “such autonomy should never be reduced or threatened.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Puerto Rico’s strategic and ideological value for the United States quickly faded, as did any urgency to sustain the colony economically. By 2006 the United States had closed the massive Roosevelt Roads Naval Station and terminated preferential tax policies that had lured multinational corporations to the archipelago. Both decisions resulted in a precipitous decline in gross national income, and Puerto Rico began its descent into a protracted recession. In a risky effort to reverse the dramatic contraction in revenue, the colonial government borrowed excessively from the U.S. institutional bond market. But Puerto Rico’s depleted economy could not sustain the burden of escalating debt. Successive administrations utilized the fiscal autonomy Congress had granted Puerto Rico to enact draconian austerity measures in a failed effort to restore fiscal solvency, but the deep cuts to government employment and services failed to reduce the debt overhang.
After years of punishing austerity measures, Puerto Ricans began to grasp the reality that their political class owed its allegiance to foreign capital and not to unemployed workers, struggling pensioners, or poverty-stricken families. Puerto Ricans also learned that ELA, irrespective of which party controlled the levers of government, was not up to the task of managing the fiscal crisis. ELA was exposed for what it was: an instrument for colonial management that had outlived its purpose.
On November 6, 2012, indignant Puerto Ricans voted the pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño out of office. But in a referendum held on the same day, 54 percent of the electorate voted against Puerto Rico keeping its current territorial status. A majority had abandoned hope that ELA could be refurbished for the modern era, but they switched back and forth in support of statehood and Commonwealth parties in the hope that each new administration would not be marred by the ineptitude, corruption, and penchant for austerity of its predecessor.
The federal government was also coming to the conclusion that change was needed to resolve the fiscal crisis. But the United States was convinced that Puerto Rico’s political leaders were wholly to blame. In 2016 the Obama administration enacted PROMESA, which rescinded the informal fiscal autonomy Congress has granted Puerto Rico in 1952. The law authorized the president to appoint a Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) that was required “to provide a method” for Puerto Rico “to achieve fiscal responsibility and access to capital markets.” The FOMB “holds supremacy over any territorial law or regulation that is inconsistent with the Act or Fiscal reform plans.”
Puerto Ricans, who have no representatives in Congress, were excluded from the deliberations and drafting of a law that would have catastrophic consequences for many in the archipelago. PROMESA negated Truman’s declaration in 1952 that “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico will be a government which is truly by the consent of the governed.” But Obama did not have to revoke PL 600, because the law never restricted “the authority of Congress under the Territorial Clause to determine the application of Federal law to Puerto Rico.” Congress simply allowed Puerto Rico’s political class to manage the colony’s finances—until this policy of benign neglect resulted in a major crisis for U.S. institutional investors.
In major popular mobilizations in Puerto Rico over the last few years, protesters have expressed their opposition to both the local political elite and Washington. In other words, they are rejecting the entire system of colonial rule. For Puerto Ricans protesting the Rosselló administration in the summer of 2019, ELA no longer had any legitimacy. A popular chant captured their antipathy to the Commonwealth: “Sí, sí, ELA se murió, y el pueblo lo enterró” (“Yes, yes, ELA died, and the people buried it”).
But if ELA is dead, how long will it lay in state? Will it ever be interred?
Senators on both sides of the aisle have already expressed their opposition to statehood, including Senator Chuck Schumer, who said that he is “not going to support their statehood bill.” Even if Congress agreed to accept the results of a referendum, it is doubtful it would commit to admitting Puerto Rico into the union on the basis of a simple majority vote, as H.R. 1522 provides. In the absence of overwhelming popular support for statehood, Congress will not act.
Requiring congressional acceptance of a referendum is the Achilles heel of both bills under consideration. Over thirty years ago, Congress debated territorial status legislation that contained a “self-executing provision,” obligating Congress to accept the referendum results. The legislation was delayed until the binding requirement was removed from both the House and Senate versions of the bill. The House approved the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act in 1991, but the bill died in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. The New York Times reported that Republican senators “feared that a Puerto Rican state would send an overwhelmingly Democratic delegation to Congress.” Some senators were also convinced that granting statehood to Puerto Rico “would give momentum to a campaign to grant statehood to the District of Columbia.” Others questioned the costs of sustaining the state of Puerto Rico, where almost half the population would qualify for welfare benefits. All these issues will loom over the forthcoming congressional deliberations on status legislation.
The Supreme Court decided in 1901 not to incorporate Puerto Rico as a territory because it was “inhabited by alien races.” Racism has long influenced U.S. treatment of Puerto Rico, all the way through the 1991 status referendum legislation. After the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy declined to support the status bill, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan denounced the behavior of his colleagues as the “most shameful display of nativism I have yet to encounter in 15 years in the Senate. One Senator after another took occasion to say he was not sure Puerto Ricans belong in American society.” He condemned comments by colleagues who believed that Puerto Ricans “do not fit culturally” in the United States.
And racism continues to shape the question of Puerto Rico’s status today. Soon after Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, President Trump launched a barrage of demeaning statements about the archipelago and its people. Just months before the 2020 election, Trump threatened to sell Puerto Rico because it “was dirty and the people were poor.” By its silence, the Republican Party endorsed Trump’s racist comments—and we shouldn’t be surprised if nativism rears its head again in the debates about territorial status that lie ahead.
What are Puerto Rico’s realistic territorial options? Rubén Berríos, President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, raised an issue at the Senate committee hearings in 1991 that is just as relevant today: the real issue is what type of relationship the United States should have with a “people who constitute a historically distinct nationality, inhabiting a separate and distinct territory, who speak a different language, who aspire to maintain a separate identity and happen, through no choice of their own, to be citizens of the U.S.” History suggests that although the Estado Libre Asociado is dead, continued colonial rule may well be the only option Congress will seriously consider.
Pedro Cabán is Professor of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies at the University at Albany.