The U.S.A. and Puerto Rico: between Statehood and Self Determination

by Carmen Forlenza and Giacomo Forges

campidoglio porto rico
Figure 1: Puerto Rican flag in front of the Capitol in San Juan. (AP/Ricardo Arduengo)

1. Introduction


On November 3, 2020, Puerto Rico held a referendum; the ballot measure was “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” A majority of voters answered “yes”. The referendum was non-binding; it was the sixth referendum held on the status of Puerto Rico. Therefore, it is hard to understand whether it will have a significant impact.


Puerto Rico is an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. It is an unincorporated territory of the United States, a self-governing territory without legal authority. The archipelago is a “political paradox”: part of the United States, but distinct; Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but have no full voting representation and the island is imbued with nationalism without being a sovereign state.

San Juan Porto Rico
Figure 2: People wearing a mask in the streets of San Juan, July 2020. (AFP/ Ricardo Arduengo)

Puerto Rico has been in default since 2015 when the sovereign debt was $72 billion.[1] The island is still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria – with a death toll of 3,000 people and $95 billion in damage[2] – and the series of earthquakes detected between December 2019 and February 2020, which badly damaged the entire power grid. During Trump’s presidency, calls for help after Hurricane Maria were long ignored[3]funds for disaster relief were diverted to other projects, such as the border wall with Mexico. The pandemic has worsened an already difficult situation and Puerto Rico has received considerably lower funding than other states with a similar population to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, though its health system is weaker.


2. The Anomaly of Puerto Rico


Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taíno, an indigenous people. The island had been subjected to Spanish Rule with the arrival of Columbus in 1493. Then, it came under the control of the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Three years later, the Supreme Court of the United States, with the rulings known as Insular Cases, envisaged the future of the territories acquired after the war.

Puerto Rico became an “unincorporated territory”, a hybrid status denying full constitutional protection to the island inhabitants. The reason behind that is the racial prejudice according to which Puerto Ricans belonged to “alien races” and could not be ruled by “institution[s] of Anglo-Saxon origin”; their religion, traditions, laws and mindset were too different.


In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, but they have only been authorized to elect their own governor since 1947.[1] In 1952, the promulgation of the Constitution formally marked Puerto Rico transition from colony, under the direct control of the Department of the Interior, to Free Associated State.