What is Puerto Rico?

Last week, President Clinton freed 12 jailed members of FALN, a group that fought for Puerto Rican independence (sometimes with bombs) from the United States. What, exactly, is Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S.? And what alternatives have been proposed?

The U.S. took possession of Puerto Rico in 1898 as part of its spoils from the Spanish-American War. Congress governed the Caribbean island directly as a territory until 1952, when it expanded Puerto Rican autonomy by making it a “commonwealth,” allowing it to adopt a constitution and create a locally elected government with statelike powers. (Click here for a map of Puerto Rico.)

As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico is subject to all federal laws, and the U.S. Congress reserves the right to repeal any locally enacted legislation. Congress granted Puerto Ricans statutory U.S. citizenship in 1917, which can be revoked, as opposed to constitutional citizenship, which is almost impossible to cancel. Puerto Ricans residing in Puerto Rico cannot vote for president, and the delegate they elect to Congress has no vote. Puerto Rico residents are also exempt from federal income tax but qualify for federal entitlements. And all 18-year-old Puerto Rican males must register for the draft, just like U.S. residents.

Puerto Ricans are free to move to the U.S. where their rights of citizenship become constitutional, affording them the right to vote in all elections. Currently, 2 million Puerto Ricans live in the United States and 4 million live in Puerto Rico.

Commonwealth was designed as a temporary fix, but periodic plebiscites have not resolved what relationship the island’s residents want with the U.S. In 1993 and 1998, support was evenly divided between commonwealth status and pursuit of statehood. In both plebiscites, independence got less than 5 percent of the vote. Washington is not likely to formalize Puerto Rico’s status until a clearer consensus emerges.

Puerto Rico has benefited economically from being a commonwealth. After World War II, America poured millions of dollars into Puerto Rican development, transforming it from one of the Caribbean’s poorest territories to one of the wealthiest. The island still receives $10 billion in assistance (including entitlements) each year. American companies investing in Puerto Rico have long been exempted from income tax, making the island a manufacturing and pharmaceutical center. Congress has begun to phase out the tax exemption, reducing the attractiveness of investment there. If Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status becomes more permanent, advocates say that citizenship and economic assistance will, as well. But there is some debate as to whether such guarantees are constitutionally possible.

Statehood advocates desire the benefits of constitutional citizenship, the federal safety net, and the economic stability that will likely follow. Puerto Rican critics of statehood oppose the island’s continued dependence on the U.S. and worry that it might eliminate Puerto Rico’s Latin culture. (Indeed, some members of Congress have proposed adoption of English as the official language as a prerequisite for statehood.) American critics oppose statehood on fiscal grounds. As a state, Puerto Rico’s per capita income would be half that of Mississippi, currently the poorest state. In 1995, the General Accounting Office estimated statehood would cost the U.S. Treasury another $3 billion in annual benefits.

Supporters of Puerto Rican independence advocate continued ties to the U.S., including a free trade pact, a common currency, and joint citizenship. Some also suggest that the U.S. would continue to be responsible for the country’s defense. But independence critics dismiss it as unworkable, saying Puerto Rico lacks the infrastructure and natural resources to compete effectively.

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