Puerto Rico has been under the control of the US government since 1898, when the US military invaded the island during the Spanish-American war. Since then, there has been an ongoing conversation about the nature of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US government. The latest referendum discussing Puerto Rican statehood just occurred back in June of this year. Now more than ever, people are wondering- will Puerto Rico ever become a state?
Puerto Rico and the US Government: A Complicated Relationship
Ever since the US military invaded its shores, the relationship between the US government and the people of Puerto Rico has been particularly strained. Before it became US territory, Puerto Rico had been a Spanish colonial territory. In the 1800s, it had been the site of a few particularly violent anti-Spanish, pro-independence uprisings. The push for Puerto Rican independence did not end once the US acquired the island.
A few years after the US invasion, the US government passed laws that allowed Puerto Rico to govern itself to a very limited extent. Only in 1917 were Puerto Ricans given US citizenship, though this was very controversial- many Puerto Ricans worried that this happened only so the government could lawfully draft Puerto Rican men to fight in World War I. Until the middle of the twentieth century, Puerto Rico was largely controlled by the US military, with a president-appointed governor.
Around the 1950s, the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US changed drastically. In 1950, the US Congress passed a bill to give the Puerto Rican government an option to draft its own constitution. In 1952, the Constitutional Convention drafted the document and 82% of the Puerto Rican population voted to approve the constitution in a referendum. The constitution deemed that the island is a commonwealth and gave the US Congress power to legislate on most aspects of life.
Referendums on Statehood
Since 1967, there have been seven referendums concerning Puerto Rico’s possibility of becoming a US state. In 1967, the referendum resulted in most people voting to remain a commonwealth. In 1993 and 1998, the same question was considered but the results were much closer to being 50/50 with regard to remaining a commonwealth versus becoming a state. Only in the two most recent referendums, held in 2012 and 2017, has the vote indicated that statehood is preferable.
The most recent referendum was particularly controversial. The longstanding Popular Democratic Party advocated a boycott of the referendum due to the way Puerto Rico was described on the ballot itself (which stated that Puerto Rico was a colony and said that the US government had absolute power over the island). While 97% of voters chose statehood only 23% of Puerto Ricans voted in the referendum- a historical low. However, it would take an act of US Congress for the island’s status to officially change. Since the voter turnout was so poor, many experts think that the referendum will not result in statehood anytime soon.
However, there is still a third option- becoming a Free Associate State like Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. They are associated with the US government in a number of ways. For instance, they use American dollars and have some kind of defense agreement should war occur. This has been a popular option in previous referendums, but it still has yet to be favored by a majority of Puerto Ricans.
Ultimately, Puerto Rico’s status is in the hands of the US government. Puerto Rico can hold referendums to gauge public thought but there is no way of guaranteeing that the voted-for option is carried out. Given the current geopolitical climate, it is likely that the issue of Puerto Rico’s statehood will remain up in the air for years to come.