(The Emancipation of) the World’s Last Colony

3.4 Million Puerto Ricans Seek to Redefine their  Island’s Relationship with the US

puerto rico
Photo by: Ullses Jorge

In the Caribbean, to the East of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and to the North of Venezuela, there is an island that belongs to, but is not part of, the United States (US). As a relic of the 1898 Spanish-American War, its inhabitants are US citizens, but they have no vote or voice in presidential and congressional elections. Currently facing a severe economic and financial crisis, Puerto Rico has tried to redefine its relationship with its motherland in a series of referendums, the latest of which will take place on 11 June this year.

By: Bram De Botselier, in collaboration with Mili Landrón Acevedo 

The Political Status Question of Puerto Rico

Officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the island is an unincorporated US territory, and thus, it does not have the same rights under the US Constitution as a State. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in elections for the US President or the US Senate, and they only have one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Unlike Hawaii and Alaska, which were incorporated territories before being admitted to the US as a State, Puerto Rico’s unincorporated status does not necessarily lead to statehood. Puerto Rico has some autonomy and elects its own parliamentary assembly and Governor, but US federal institutions are the highest authority on the island. Moreover, Puerto Ricans often do not benefit from federal programs to the same degree as States; for example, only receiving half as many healthcare funds compared to States despite paying the same level of healthcare taxes.

The complicated question of Puerto Rico’s status has been a hot political issue for decades, and, recently, even more so due to the Puerto Rican debt crisis. A debt of 72 billion USD (around 70% of its GDP) has caused the government to fail several debt payments. Together with generally bad productivity and emigration ranging between 1,5 and 2%, this has crippled the Puerto Rican economy. Additionally, due to its unclear political status, the island does not qualify for the same protection against debt holders as US States or cities. The US has responded to the crisis by establishing a fiscal control board that would oversee the island’s finances, in a manner somewhat comparable to the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (also known as the “troika”) with regard to Greece. The Board is currently presided over by Natalie Jaresko, a technocrat who was earlier brought into Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s first government to oversee the Ukrainian economic crisis. The unelected Board has proposed severe austerity measures, including cutting the public university’s budget in half and closing down 184 public schools. These measures have led to much public outrage, and have also reinforced the debate on Puerto Rico’s political status.

So, what are the different opinions on the political status question then? Four different perspectives can be identified. For one, the status quo continues Puerto Rico’s ambiguous relationship with the US. The second option is starting the procedure to become a US State with full rights and responsibilities. The third option is full independence from the United States. Finally, the fourth option involves increased autonomy, where Puerto Rico would decide jointly with the US on what areas they would cooperate and in what policies it would be autonomous.

The pro-Commonwealth forces have historically been the strongest, winning referendums in 1967 and 1993, although the latter only with a plurality as the statehood movement gradually grew in popularity. In 1998, the option “none of the above” received the most votes, while the most recent referendum in 2012 resulted in a majority against Puerto Rico’s current political status. However, many of the referendums have been politically motivated and controversial, and the results have, consequently, been interpreted in different ways. A new referendum will be organized on 11 June 2017, with three different options: status quo, statehood or independence/more autonomy.

The (Lack of) Response by the International Community and the European Union

In 1953, Puerto Rico was officially removed from the list of non-self-governing territories by the United Nations General Assembly. However, the UN Decolonization Committee has repeatedly passed resolutions calling on the US to allow Puerto Rico the right to self-determination. Internationally, Puerto Rico has been the victim of a game between anti-US nations such as Cuba and Venezuela, on the one hand, who try to embarrass their nemesis by provoking an independence movement in one of its territories, and the US, on the other hand, which is concerned with its influence in Latin America.

The European Union has largely remained on the sidelines throughout the whole debate, despite strong historical links with the island, which is also a former Spanish colony and the second oldest European settlement in the Americas. In a response to a European Parliament question, former High Representative Catherine Ashton merely referred to the UN Decolonization Committee resolutions, without endorsing them, as well as to the need of solving the issues through bilateral talks between the US and Puerto Rico. Other parliamentary answers on the island’s political status simply respond that the issue has not been discussed during Council meetings. Considering the EU’s self-proclaimed support for human rights, fundamental liberties, and democracy all over the world, this hands-off approach is rather bizarre. It is true that with regard to countries like China and Russia, the EU’s actions rarely live up to its normative rhetoric. However, when it comes to Puerto Rico, the EU has not even bothered to come up with such rhetoric.


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