The End of the Commonwealth of Puerto RicoRoundup
tags: Puerto Rico
Pedro Cabán is Professor of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies at the University at Albany.
he House Committee on Natural Resources held hearings on April 14, 2021, on two bills that propose to end Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States: H.R. 1522, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, and H.R. 2070, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021. Under H.R. 1522, Puerto Rico would hold a referendum, with a transition to statehood if the electorate chooses that territorial option. H.R. 2070 does not specify territorial options; instead, delegates elected to a Puerto Rican Status Convention would draft a list of self-determination options, and a referendum would be held for voters to select the preferred option. According to Senator Bob Menendez, a cosponsor of H.R. 2070, the available options include “statehood, independence, a free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.” Both measures would obligate Congress to abide by the Puerto Rican people’s decision on their country’s territorial status.
The hearings signaled a shift in the government’s approach toward Puerto Rico. For the first time, Congress has introduced legislation that excluded the Estado Libre Asociado (“Free Associated State,” commonly known as the Commonwealth) as a territorial option. ELA emerged during the Cold War as a way to refute the Soviet Union’s credible denunciation of the United States as a colonial power. The Truman administration asked Congress in 1950 to vote for Public Law 600 (the enabling legislation for ELA) because, in “view of the importance of ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ in anti-American propaganda,” passage of the bill would have “great value as a symbol of the basic freedom enjoyed by Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rican Governor Luís Muñoz Marín said that ELA “will free both Puerto Ricans and the people of the rest of the states of the malicious accusation of colonialism so constantly wielded against them by Communist groups in Latin America.” After signing PL 600 into law, President Truman triumphantly announced that “full authority and responsibility for local self-government will be vested in the people of Puerto Rico.” ELA was officially established on July 25, 1952, exactly fifty-four years after the day U.S. Army General Nelson A. Miles landed with an invasion force in the coastal town of Guánica during the Spanish–American War.
Yet Puerto Rico’s autonomy was always provisional. Congress did not relinquish its constitutionally delegated powers over the territories. It merely allowed Puerto Ricans to “organize a government pursuant to a constitution of their own adoption.” In fact, Puerto Ricans ratified a constitution that effectively consented to their continued colonial subjugation. For the Truman administration, passage of the Commonwealth bill was of “the greatest importance . . . in order that formal consent of the Puerto Ricans may be given to their present relationship to the United States.” Bluntly put, ELA was an instrument to prove that the colonized formally accepted U.S. colonial rule.
Nonetheless, for seven decades the United States has portrayed ELA as providing Puerto Rico with self-governing powers. As recently as 2011, the President’s Task Force on Status reported that the Commonwealth “has significant local political autonomy” and reported that “such autonomy should never be reduced or threatened.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Puerto Rico’s strategic and ideological value for the United States quickly faded, as did any urgency to sustain the colony economically. By 2006 the United States had closed the massive Roosevelt Roads Naval Station and terminated preferential tax policies that had lured multinational corporations to the archipelago. Both decisions resulted in a precipitous decline in gross national income, and Puerto Rico began its descent into a protracted recession. In a risky effort to reverse the dramatic contraction in revenue, the colonial government borrowed excessively from the U.S. institutional bond market. But Puerto Rico’s depleted economy could not sustain the burden of escalating debt. Successive administrations utilized the fiscal autonomy Congress had granted Puerto Rico to enact draconian austerity measures in a failed effort to restore fiscal solvency, but the deep cuts to government employment and services failed to reduce the debt overhang.
After years of punishing austerity measures, Puerto Ricans began to grasp the reality that their political class owed its allegiance to foreign capital and not to unemployed workers, struggling pensioners, or poverty-stricken families. Puerto Ricans also learned that ELA, irrespective of which party controlled the levers of government, was not up to the task of managing the fiscal crisis. ELA was exposed for what it was: an instrument for colonial management that had outlived its purpose.
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