Puerto Rico 101: A Guide for Conservatives

Feb 20, 2013
6:29 PM

Editor’s Note: Latino Rebels will publish Samuel’s two-part piece today and tomorrow.

Full Disclosure: I am personally in favor of Statehood for Puerto Rico.

While the United States was holding its Presidential election, another important vote was taking place off the coast. On November 6, 2012, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico held a plebiscite to determine whether Puerto Ricans wished to change the island’s relationship with the United States. For the first time, a clear majority of Puerto Ricans wished to alter the island’s status to one of the three primary options that have been discussed (other than retaining the status quo), with “Statehood” winning over 60% of those Puerto Ricans who wished to change the island’s status.

Many conservatives with whom I have spoken have questions about the status of Puerto Rico, not only because Hispanics overwhelmingly voted for Obama, but also because conservative Puerto Rican politicians, such as Congressman Raul Labrador and outgoing Governor Luis Fortuño, have received increased attention in the United States. Thus, I wanted to create a guide for conservatives that I hope will answer most of these questions. Part 1 of this piece focuses on a short history of Puerto Rico and its relationship with the United States, as well as a description of Puerto Rico’s status as it exists today. Part 2 discusses the results of the November 6 plebiscite and its political ramifications on the mainland.

Puerto Rico: U.S. Colony, or…?

Puerto Rico was discovered in 1493 during Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World. The island was inhabited by the Taino Indians, who called the island “Borinquen,” hence the term “Boric(q)ua,” by which many Puerto Ricans self-identify.

The United States obtained sovereignty over Puerto Rico in 1898 as a spoil of the Spanish-American War. As a result, until the passage of the Jones Act of 1917, the United States was indeed an “imperial power” in the most negative sense of the term in its relationship with Puerto Rico. To be specific, the United States had full control of the administration and governance of the island, similar to that of British control of India and Burma during the same period.

The Jones Act of 1917 would pave the way for greater local governance on the island, but not entirely. The Act created separation of powers among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. The legislature was freely elected by the people of Puerto Rico, but executive control of island was still chosen by the United States. The Act also granted natural U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans living on the island, but it was not exactly out of the goodness of Uncle Sam’s heart. One of the main reasons for granting citizenship was so that men on the island would be eligible for the draft leading up to the United States’ intervention in World War I.

The introduction of elections gave rise to Nationalist (and Communist) parties and independence movements in Puerto Rico, leading to hostile and sometimes violent standoffs during the 1930’s between the U.S.-controlled executive branch and the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party.

In 1948, President Truman led the way in granting greater sovereignty for the island. That year, Congress passed a law allowing Puerto Rico to freely elect its own Governor. In 1950, legislation was passed allowing Puerto Rico to draft its own constitution, and by this time the status of Puerto Rico was “upgraded” from “protectorate” to “commonwealth.” The constitution was approved in 1952 by Puerto Ricans in a referendum.

The fact that Puerto Rico’s first Governor, Luis Muñoz Marin, was in favor of strengthening the island’s relationship with the United States, rather than severing it, infuriated the Nationalists of the island. This conflict led to several uprisings and terrorist acts, including an assassination attempt on President Harry Truman in 1951, and a shooting incident from the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954.

In the 1960’s, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación National (Armed Forces of National Liberation) was founded as a terrorist organization which advanced the ideal of an independent (and Marxist-Leninist) Puerto Rican nation. This organization has been cited for initiating over 120 bombing attacks on U.S. government targets between 1974 and 1983. For those who recall, then-President Bill Clinton created controversy when he pardoned 19 members of the group in 1999. Their leader, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, not content with his first terrorist organization, would later found the “Boricua Popular Army,” which is the still-active descendent of the FALN. Filiberto was later killed in an FBI raid of his home in Puerto Rico in 2007.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these incidents, popular support for full independence of Puerto Rico has remained below double digits in polls and island-wide plebiscites.


Pro-statehood demonstration, 1967.

Status, Status, Status

The main question I get from conservatives is usually, “what IS Puerto Rico?” As in, what is its exact relationship with the United States? “Commonwealth” does not really help because several states are officially named Commonwealths (Virginia and Massachusetts, for example), and Puerto Rico is obviously not a state.

The reality is that there is no easy way to answer the question. Puerto Rico has the characteristics of both a U.S. State and an independent nation, and has even a passing resemblance to the District of Columbia. But to make it simple, here is an abridged list of the similarities and differences between Puerto Rico and the 50 States:

  • Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens. (That makes them natural born, birthers, so STFU.)
  • Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress (we only have a “Resident Commissioner”) and no Presidential electors.
  • Puerto Ricans cannot vote in federal elections. Therefore, former-Governor Luis Fortuño can be on the ballot for President (provided that he lives within the 50 States for 14 years), yet cannot vote for himself. Let that sink in for a bit.
  • Like a State, Puerto Rico is self-governing; it has a governor and a legislature, and is able to pass its own budgets without federal approval.
  • Also similar to a State, Puerto Rico does not engage in independent foreign relations with other nations.
  • Puerto Ricans in general do not have to pay federal income taxes (unless they receive federal income), but they are required to fully pay all other federal taxes, including Medicare, payroll, and gasoline.
  • Because Puerto Rico is not a State, Puerto Ricans are ineligible for SSI, and receive less than 15% of Medicaid funding that a State would normally receive. Puerto Rican Medicare providers also receive less in reimbursements than providers in a State normally would.
  • Puerto Rican law follows Napoleonic Civil Law, not English Common Law (similar to that of Louisiana).
  • For the purposes of imports/exports, Puerto Rico is considered a “foreign nation,” which means the island is hit with tariffs on goods that would be unconstitutional if the island were a State.
  • English is taught from 1st through 12th grade on the island, but because of the predominance of Spanish media and commonality, and the varying qualities of public education, only around 15% of the island is fluent in English.
  • All Puerto Rican men over the age of 18 are required to register for Selective Service. (Imagine if you could be compelled to go to war, but not have a say on who puts you there.)

The above is, in a nutshell, what defines Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States: an absolute mess.

Since the declaration of Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status in 1954, three major political parties have existed on the island: The New Progressive Party (PNP), which is pro-Statehood; the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which is pro-Commonwealth/Status Quo; and the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP), which is, of course, pro-Independence. This has been another source of confusion for conservatives: though technically the Republican and Democratic parties exist on the island, the status-centric parties receive the most attention and are on the ballot during elections.

In Part 2 of this write-up, attention is given to the November 6, 2012 plebiscite, the politics of statehood on the U.S. mainland, and what conservatives can do on the issue.

Samuel A. Rosado, Esq. is an attorney from New Jersey. He served as Executive Director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of New Jersey in 2010, and has been a freelance contributor and writer on Hispanic issues and engagement for Politic365, The Daily Grito, and Misfit Politics. Follow him on twitter at @SARosado.