Remember When the U.S. Wanted to Figure Out Puerto Rico? That’s Still Happening

Puerto Rico may have voted in favor of statehood, but its future status remains unclear.

Pro-statehood New Progressive Party supporters waves a U.S. flag at the party's closing election campaign rally in San Juan, Puerto Rico last November.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Aug. 26, 2013, 3 a.m.

As Hawaii marks the 54th an­niversary of its state­hood this month, we’re re­minded that the fu­ture of one of the coun­try’s ter­rit­or­ies re­mains in flux. Last Novem­ber, Pu­erto Ric­ans voted in a plebis­cite — the fourth of its kind since 1967 — in fa­vor of state­hood for the first time ever.

Des­pite the res­ults, con­ver­sa­tions about the fu­ture of what some call Amer­ica’s last colony have petered out. Con­gress held a hear­ing on Pu­erto Rico’s status at the be­gin­ning of this month, with sen­at­ors call­ing for a change, any change.

“After 115 years, it is clearly time for Pu­erto Rico to de­term­ine what polit­ic­al path it will take,” Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said at the hear­ing, re­fer­ring to 1898, the year Spain ceded Pu­erto Rico to the United States. “The cur­rent status un­der­mines our na­tion’s mor­al stand­ing around the world.”

What’s keep­ing Pu­erto Rico in polit­ic­al limbo?

While more vot­ing is sure to come, law­makers from the is­land and the main­land have yet to fig­ure out what to ask Pu­erto Ric­ans on the bal­lot. The Sen­ate com­mit­tee lead­ers read last year’s res­ults as Pu­erto Ric­ans re­ject­ing the cur­rent status, but some ques­tion the valid­ity of the vot­ing out­come. The first ques­tion on the bal­lot asked voters if they favored U.S. ter­rit­ory status; 54 per­cent said they didn’t. The second asked voters to choose from three op­tions: state­hood, in­de­pend­ence, or sov­er­eign free as­so­ci­ation — a status that would give Pu­erto Rico more autonomy than it cur­rently has.

Sixty-one per­cent chose state­hood, but 26 per­cent of voters left the bal­lot blank. Pu­erto Rico Gov. Ale­jandro Gar­cia Pa­dilla be­lieves this shrank sup­port for state­hood to 44 per­cent. He calls for something like the cur­rent com­mon­wealth status, not full-fledged state­hood, but at this month’s hear­ing he didn’t provide de­tails on how that would work.

Mean­while, Res­id­ent Com­mis­sion­er Pedro Pier­lu­isi, the is­land’s non­vot­ing mem­ber of Con­gress and a state­hood sup­port­er, is push­ing for a fed­er­ally com­mis­sioned “yes” or “no” vote to de­cide Pu­erto Rico’s fu­ture once and for all, just like the one for Hawaii 54 years ago. Pier­lu­isi’s party, the New Pro­gress­ive Party, filed a law­suit this sum­mer against Pa­dilla, claim­ing the gov­ernor was try­ing to dis­suade law­makers on the main­land from sup­port­ing state­hood.

Wyden says an “en­hanced com­mon­wealth” such as the one Pa­dilla is pro­pos­ing is not an op­tion. Pa­dilla coun­ters that neither is state­hood, say­ing that last year’s vote was “an elect­or­al pro­cess rigged in fa­vor of state­hood” be­cause it didn’t in­clude a range of dif­fer­ent op­tions, a pro­cess known as self-de­term­in­a­tion. While he hasn’t said as much, un­der Pa­dilla’s stand­ards, the bal­lot that helped de­term­ine Hawaii’s fu­ture in 1959 would be con­sidered a fraud.

Al­though it doesn’t mat­ter now, the Hawaii­an plebis­cite vote was once ques­tioned too. “It pre­ten­ded that Hawaii did not have to go through a self-de­term­in­a­tion,” says Jonath­an Osorio, a Hawaii­an stud­ies pro­fess­or at Uni­versity of Hawaii (Manoa). “We were not giv­en the full range of op­tions.”

U.S. law­makers are anxious to re­define Pu­erto Rico’s status. But the tug-of-war between its lead­ers, com­bined with un­cer­tainty about past state-com­mis­sioned votes and fid­get­ing over po­ten­tial fed­er­al ones, sug­gest that the is­land will have to keep wait­ing.

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