Why Are We in Puerto Rico?
An imperial primer.
Debate now focuses on whether to continue commonwealth status or to make Puerto Rico a state. Commonwealth status has the advantage of sharply restricting island dwellers' exposure to federal taxation but the disadvantage of limiting their representation in Congress, excluding them from nonprimary presidential elections, and reducing their eligibility for Medicaid and other federal entitlements. Statehood would bring more taxes, more representation, more government benefits, and some loss of cultural identity (including, in all likelihood, additional pressure to make English the island's primary language). During the past 40 years, Puerto Rico has conducted four plebescites on the island's fate. Commonwealth status won a majority of votes in 1967 and 1991. In 1993, commonwealth status won a 48.6 percent plurality against 46.3 percent for statehood and 4.4 percent for independence. In 1998, a dispute over what "commonwealth status" would mean in the future caused a slim majority (50.3 percent) to choose "none of the above" against 46.5 percent for statehood and 2.5 percent for independence. In all four votes, the status quo prevailed, though in one case by default and in another by a margin of fewer than three points.
Under the Presidents Bush and President Clinton, the feds scrutinized with growing urgency the question of what the hell it was that Puerto Ricans wanted. Justice Department reports are now issued every two years. During the past decade, a major snag has been a growing movement within Puerto Rico for what has come to be called "new commonwealth" status. (Failure to include this option in the 1998 plebescite caused the "none of the above" debacle.) In effect, elevating Puerto Rico to a "new commonwealth" would give the island the benefits of sovereignty without sacrificing the benefits of U.S. governance. It would protect the status quo (possibly adding some elements more favorable to Puerto Rico) by stipulating that no further changes could be made without mutual agreement between Puerto Rico and the federal government. As things stand now, Congress is free to alter Puerto Rico's status unilaterally.
Under both Clinton and Bush fils, the Justice Department argued (somewhat persuasively) that any attempt to restrict future legislative alterations to Puerto Rico's status would be unconstitutional. An alternative mentioned in the Justice Department's 2007 report would follow the "compact of free association" created for Micronesia when the United States granted it independence in 1986. Under the compact, Micronesia continues to receive military protection and financial assistance, and its citizens may freely "enter the United States as non-immigrants" to reside and work here. But this option hasn't attracted much of a following in Puerto Rico because, like the island's present arrangement, it would be susceptible to unilateral termination by Congress. Last year Puerto Rico's governor took its case for a "new commonwealth" to the U.N. General Assembly. In response, the General Assembly called on the United States to "expedite self-determination" for Puerto Rico, but the scolding was hardly disinterested; leading the gleeful charge against Yanqui imperialism was the United States' least-favorite neighbor, Cuba.
Can the "new commonwealth" idea pass constitutional muster? It isn't inconceivable that Justice Sonia Sotomayor might one day rule on this question.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of U.S. troops entering Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in August 1898 from the Library of Congress.