The political reality of Puerto Rico Americans

By Taima Brown 

The mainland borders of the United States of America give the misleading idea that the size of the US does not reach further, but many overseas territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam are also part of the nation. Why this is the case is not discussed enough. For instance, the island of Puerto Rico became an US territory after a conflict with the Spanish colonizers. Still, Puerto Rico is no official state that is blessed with the same rights as other US domains. In the light of the recent Puerto Rican statehood referendum, the political reality of Puerto Rico and its inhabitants needs to be examined. By looking at the shared history, the political standpoint and rights of Puerto Ricans and the aftermath of hurricane Maria a conclusion is drawn on the current situation of Puerto Ricans as Americans. It becomes clear that, even today, Puerto Rico is neglected as a US’ second-class priority which leads far back to the island’s colonial past. As some colonial aspects were never legally challenged, this framework impacts Puerto Rican’s US citizens rights even today.

How Puerto Rico became a US territory 
Puerto Rico, and its capital San Juan, were a Spanish colony up until the Spanish-American War started on April 21st, 1898 [1]. The war broke out due to the Spanish rulers establishing an “autonomous” regime which only consisted of pro-Spanish classes, crushing any hopes for a more diverse governance of Puerto Rico [1]. Independence-supporting Puerto Ricans, who mostly lived in exile at that point, rejected the newly implemented changes and pushed the US towards political interference. However, its supporters underestimated the US’ own imperial ambitions [1]. The US won the conflict and the exact terms of the island’s handover were set in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The document determined the beginnings of Puerto Rico, and other former Spanish colonies as Cuba and the Philippines, as an American territory [2]. As a result, Puerto Rico was ruled as an American colony. Only in the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration decided to support a systemic change on the island and the political liberal-leaning Puerto Rican party called PPD [3]. The PPD was favoured by the Americans, because they did not reject all colonial structures and pledged to stay somewhat attached to the US government. The political change was therefore more of a symbolic nature. The shift was internationally criticised, because the US advertised itself as an anti-colonial force after World War 2 [3]. Many considered the US’ liberal attitude as a farce, because of this double standard. As a response, the US Congress passed Public Law 81-600 which established a Republican form of local government and a constitution while keeping Puerto Rico as an American overseas territory [3]. The only difference now was that the US government could present the relationship to other nations as a freely entered pact. 

By 1952, Puerto Rico, or Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, became a part of the US Commonwealth which persists up to this day. The Commonwealth can be defined as a union in which self-governing territories as Puerto Rico are associated with the US [4]. As Puerto Rico has its own government, the island is officially self-governed regarding its insular matters, but political decisions are still decided on in Washington D.C.. Today, Puerto Ricans are divided on whether full integration as an US state, sovereignty or the Commonwealth status is ideal for the island. 

The political rights & reality of Puerto Ricans as Americans
Due to the Jones Act of 1917 Puerto Ricans receive US citizenship [3] and the 1940 Nationality Act addition finally stated that all Puerto Ricans are considered US citizens at birth [5]. This shows that a significant amount of time had to pass until Puerto Ricans were sure of their citizen status. Today, the US system still makes a distinction in US citizen rights, depending on where a Puerto Rican person lives. This means that all US citizen rights are only applicable to Puerto Ricans that live in the US mainland and not on the island itself [6]. Puerto Ricans can state their standpoint on political matters through their representative, but their voices are not equally valued. For instance, Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot vote in the Presidential election and their only representative in the US Congress has no voting right [5]. Critics often consider this situation as proof that Puerto Rico’s citizens have a second-class citizenship – being attached to the US while not being able to fully take advantage of all rights. 

Puerto Rico has held multiple referendums on the topic of its statehood. On November 6th 2020, Puerto Ricans voted once more in a non-binding statehood referendum in favour of Puerto Rico becoming the US’ 51st state [7]. Without the support of both congressional chambers though, no further action will follow the referendum. This means no change is made to Puerto Ricans’ current situation.

Hurricane Maria and its influence on Puerto Rico’s relationship with Washington 
When hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20th 2017 [8], the US’ indifference towards the island and its well-being was highlighted once more. The devastation caused by the hurricane was enormous – a total damage of $90 billion [9] – leaving people to search for food and clean water. But while the people of Puerto Rico improvised as much as they could until the help by its US government arrived, the expected big help never came into practice. The storm laid bare the island’s ignored reality: the neglected infrastructure and the social abandonment by US leaders [10]. When help finally arrived, the offering was spare – a situation that did not change after the enormous media coverage of the situation [10]. Again, criticism arose on how the US handles its internal affairs while pointing out how other countries neglect their duties in similar situations. By focusing only on internal American issues, it becomes obvious though that places such as Flint (Michigan) also experience issues with concessions from Washington [10]. Therefore, an all-inclusive answer on why these cases of negligence appear cannot be easily found. In the case of Puerto Rico, the relationship with Washington became more strained and the equality of Puerto Ricans as Americans is once more a hot topic.

Puerto Rico battles the consequences of hurricane Maria up to this day. The slow-moving reconstruction shows that the US government does not prioritize Puerto Rico and rather ignores the issues on the island. For every US citizen though, help should be equally available, if at home or abroad. The constitution needs to be effective for every US citizen in its full extent and the US government needs to demonstrate a clear stance that all citizens that adhere to the US law are equal. Any indifference towards the oversea territories needs to be overcome and more awareness needs to be raised on Puerto Rico’s special position. The people’s matters deserve to be taken seriously – in congress, abroad and on the island itself. The current generation of Puerto Ricans already made clear in the referendums that the wish for closer ties exists- a wish that should be acknowledged.  


[1] Malavet, P. A. (2000). Puerto Rico: Cultural Nation, American Colony. Michigan Journal
of Race & Law, 6(1), 1-106.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 3). Treaty of Paris. Britannica.

[3] Caban, P. (2002). Puerto Rico: State Formation in a Colonial Context. Caribbean Studies,
30(2), p. 170-215.

[4] Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d). Commonwealth. Cambridge Dictionary. 

[5] Blakemore, E.. (2020, July 24). Why Puerto Rico has debated U.S. statehood since its
colonization. National Geographic.

[6] Malavet, P. A. (2004). America’s Colony: The Political and Cultural Conflict between the

United States and Puerto Rico. New York University Press. 

[7] Santiago, A., Kustov, A., & Valenzuela, A. A.. (2020, November 13). Puerto Ricans voted to
become the 51st U.S. state – again. The Washington Post. 

[8] Zorilla, C. D. (2017). The view from Puerto Rico – Hurricane Maria and Its Aftermath.
New England Journal of Medicine, 377(19), 1801-1803. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1713196 

[9] Acevedo, N. (2020, September 20). Puerto Rico sees more pain and little progress three years after Hurricane Maria. NBC News. 

[10] Bonilla, Y. (2020). The coloniality of disaster: Race, empire, and the temporal logics of emergency in Puerto Rico, USA. Political Geography, 78, 1-12. 

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