Puerto Rico has been a colonial possession of the United States since 1898 when the island was ceded by Spain through the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish American War. U.S. sovereignty over the territory was ratified by the U.S. Senate on April 11, 1899, sustaining that the “civil rights and political condition of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico would be determined by the U.S. Congress.”
The island territory remained under the control of United States military forces until Congress enacted the Foraker Act on April 12, 1900, which established a civilian government in Puerto Rico appointed by the U.S. Congress.
On March 2, 1917, the Jones Act—enacted by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson—granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans inhabiting the island. Nonetheless, the Act still upheld that the citizens’ civil rights and political status were controlled by the U.S. Congress. Under this Act, the governor of Puerto Rico was appointed, not elected; and local legislators and cabinet officials required approval by the U.S. Congress, which also had the power to veto any law passed by the Puerto Rico legislature.
The Jones Act, under Section 27, enacted The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, requiring that all goods between U.S. ports be transported by U.S.-flagged ships, exclusively built and operated by American citizens. Enacted 100 years ago to protect national defense and regulate the maritime industry, this law excluded the US Virgin Islands, as well as American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. To date, Congress continues to enforce this archaic and unfair law on the territory of Puerto Rico, costing upwards of billions of dollars a year to the insolvent economy of the island.
Between 1901 and 1922, the Supreme Court decided the “insular cases”, which declared that the island of Puerto Rico was an unincorporated territory under Article IV of the Constitution.
The Selective Service Act of 1917, through its passage, imposed on Puerto Rican men compulsory enlistment into the U.S. military, just as the United States entered World War I. Consequently, close to 20,000 Puerto Rican men served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I.
In 1948, sections of the Jones Act were superseded, enabling the Governor to be popularly elected. In 1950, under Public Law 600, Congress delegated to Puerto Rico the authority to draft a local Territorial Constitution with a republican form of government. It was approved by the people of Puerto Rico, ratified by the Senate and implemented in 1952. The local Constitution, established in conformity with the United States Constitution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence, did not restrict the authority and plenary powers of Congress under the Territorial Clause.
Over a century later, congressional policies continue to politically and economically marginalize Puerto Ricans who reside on the island. Treated as second-class American citizens, the 3.2 million Puerto Ricans who presently inhabit the unincorporated territory continue to have fewer constitutional rights than any other American citizen who lives in the 50 states of the Union—20 of them with smaller populations.
The island’s economy has been in a descending spiral since the recession of 2007, leading to a collapse in the housing market, dwindling of all sectors of the economy, massive migration to the mainland and a reduction in the population tax base, impacting government revenues.
For the first time since 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed Puerto Rico’s colonial territorial status and its unequal conditions. In the case of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle in 2016, the Supreme Court decided that Puerto Rico had no sovereignty, indicating in a case of double jeopardy, that “the ultimate source of prosecutorial power remains in the U.S. Congress.”
Puerto Rico’s status as a colonial territory was further reaffirmed in 2016 by Congress in the enactment of the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act” (PROMESA) and the imposition of a Financial Oversight Board to attend to Puerto Rico’s current fiscal economic crisis.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama agreed that Puerto Rico’s economic expansion is ultimately tied to its political status and the most effective means of assisting its economy depends on resolving the ultimate question of status.
In the two most recent plebiscites, the statehood option was the voters’ choice. In November 2012, more than 61 percent chose statehood, while on the June 2017 referendum, 97 percent of those who voted chose statehood over other status options.
Yet, the US Congress continues to ignore the pleas of the politically and economically disenfranchised 3.2 million Puerto Ricans who reside on the island. Notwithstanding, millions of these American citizens have voted for statehood with a plane ticket to the mainland in search of the equality, dignity and prosperity they are denied in their own homeland.
Meanwhile, those who pursue social and economic justice for the American islanders—whose numbers exceed the populations of more than 20 states--continue to vehemently strive for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the Union.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY OF