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The U.S.A. and Puerto Rico: between Statehood and Self Determination

campidoglio porto rico
Figure 1: Puerto Rican flag in front of the Capitol in San Juan. (AP/Ricardo Arduengo)

1. Introduction

On November 3, 2020, Puerto Rico held a referendum; the ballot measure was “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” A majority of voters answered “yes”. The referendum was non-binding; it was the sixth referendum held on the status of Puerto Rico. Therefore, it is hard to understand whether it will have a significant impact.

Puerto Rico is an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. It is an unincorporated territory of the United States, a self-governing territory without legal authority. The archipelago is a “political paradox”: part of the United States, but distinct; Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but have no full voting representation and the island is imbued with nationalism without being a sovereign state.

San Juan Porto Rico
Figure 2: People wearing a mask in the streets of San Juan, July 2020. (AFP/ Ricardo Arduengo)

Puerto Rico has been in default since 2015 when the sovereign debt was $72 billion.[1] The island is still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria – with a death toll of 3,000 people and $95 billion in damage[2] – and the series of earthquakes detected between December 2019 and February 2020, which badly damaged the entire power grid. During Trump’s presidency, calls for help after Hurricane Maria were long ignored[3]funds for disaster relief were diverted to other projects, such as the border wall with Mexico. The pandemic has worsened an already difficult situation and Puerto Rico has received considerably lower funding than other states with a similar population to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, though its health system is weaker.

2. The Anomaly of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taíno, an indigenous people. The island had been subjected to Spanish Rule with the arrival of Columbus in 1493. Then, it came under the control of the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Three years later, the Supreme Court of the United States, with the rulings known as Insular Cases, envisaged the future of the territories acquired after the war.

Puerto Rico became an “unincorporated territory”, a hybrid status denying full constitutional protection to the island inhabitants. The reason behind that is the racial prejudice according to which Puerto Ricans belonged to “alien races” and could not be ruled by “institution[s] of Anglo-Saxon origin”; their religion, traditions, laws and mindset were too different.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, but they have only been authorized to elect their own governor since 1947.[1] In 1952, the promulgation of the Constitution formally marked Puerto Rico transition from colony, under the direct control of the Department of the Interior, to Free Associated State.

Jenniffer Gonzalez Puerto Rico
Figure 3: Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez issuing a statement after the 2020 referendum. (U.S. House of Representatives)

Nowadays, the people of Puerto Rico elect their governor (head of the executive branch), the members of the legislative assembly and a Resident Commissioner to the United States House of Representatives. The Resident Commissioner, as the representative of Puerto Rico, is entitled to speak before the Chamber, propose legislation and participate in committees, but has no right to vote. Yet, foreign and trade policies, as well as public debt management are under the rules of U.S. bodies.

However, voting-age Puerto Ricans only need to reside in any of the 50 states of the Union to acquire the right to vote for the president and vice-president, senators and house representatives and have access to multiple federal welfare programs.

3. The Issue of Statehood

The Caribbean Island lives in a sort of jurisdictional limbo. There have been six referendums on Puerto Rico admission to the Union as a State. For the third time, in the 2020 referendum, residents of the island voted in favor of statehood.[1]

None of these referendums is binding, as the power to grant statehood belongs only to the U.S. Congress, but the referendums show the will of the people of Puerto Rico. In the last referendum, a majority of voters (52%) opted for statehood, i.e. becoming a U.S. state, but the turnout was only 53%.

The main Puerto Rican parties do not reflect the ideological division between Democrats and Republicans; they are divided according to their positions on Puerto Rico’s relation with the United States. The Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático, PPD) is in favor of maintaining the status quo, hence supporting the commonwealth status; instead, the New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista, PNP) champions statehood.

The third traditional political force is the Puerto Rican Independence Party (Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, PIP). The perspective of a sovereign and independent nation – still closely linked to the U.S. with agreements resembling those in place with the Marshall Islands and the Palau Republic – exists but is not widespread in the island.

4. Puerto Rico Through the Eyes of the United States

The control over Puerto Rico is pivotal for U.S. geopolitics because it gives the U.S. strategic control over the western hemisphere through military basis and installations on the island. Furthermore, Puerto Rico is crucial for national security issues since a ROTHR (Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar) surveillance system is operational on the island; it is a long-range radar reaching areas beyond the horizon. In Puerto Rico, it is used even to counter illegal drug trade from South America.[1]

Moreover, U.S. domestic policy also seems to be influenced by issues concerning the Puerto Rican community. According to the last census of 2018, Puerto Rico (9.5%) is the second-largest country of origin of Latinos living in the U.S., second only to Mexico (62.31%).[2] In absolute terms, nearly 5.8 million Puerto Ricans live in the U.S.,[3] exceeding the number of those (3.1 million people)[4] living in the Free Associated Territory of Puerto Rico. However, a 2017 poll showed that only 54% of Americans knew Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. From a political-electoral perspective, whether the statehood of the island is recognized; many Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. have already the right to vote since they reside in the United States. However, if Puerto Rico became the 51st state of the U.S, it would receive a specific number of electoral votes,[5] crucial in presidential elections.

Statehood is a relevant matter for both sides. On the one hand, the Democrats advocate the self‑determination process of Puerto Rico: two democratic representatives of Puerto Rican origins (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velàzquez, D-NY) have indeed proposed the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020 to the House of Representatives. A bill that aims at creating a status convention made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters to find a long-term solution for the island territorial status, outlining concrete proposals for the three options: statehood, independence and looser free association different from the current one.

Since there is no overwhelming support for the statehood of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Self‑Determination Act sparked some criticism from proponents of the island transition into territory of the United States.[6] In the United States, a bill to become law must be approved by both houses of Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) and signed by the president.

Moreover, during the 2020 election campaign, in the Biden-Harris Plan for Recovery, Renewal and Respect for Puerto Rico, President Joe Biden announced his engagement in a fair process with the representatives supporting each of the status options of Puerto Rico.

The word “statehood” is never mentioned in the document to avoid implicitly favoring the statehood option.

On the other hand, Republicans have always been more explicit about their take on the status of Puerto Rico. Since 2016, Republicans have publically championed “the right of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state.”

This option was later dismissed, as Republicans understood they would have risked losing their majority in the Senate if Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia had been granted statehood.[7] Mitch McConnell himself (R-KY) – Senate Majority Leader before the elections and nowadays Minority Leader – accused the Democrats of encouraging statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. to obtain four more senators since the Democratic party seem ahead in the polls of both territories.[8]

The 2020 Presidential election results that balanced the Senate composition (50 Republicans, 48 Democrats and 2 Independents) could lead both factions to attach greater importance to the topic, tightening up the various stances and reducing the room for maneuver.

Regarding the Puerto Rican diaspora, last December, more than 30 organizations published an open letter[9] addressed at the Biden-Harris administration expressing the need for a real decolonization process. They wanted to build upon the Velàsquex‑Ocasio Cortez proposal to find a long-term solution on the political status of Puerto Rico, establishing a mandatory response mechanism for the U.S. Congress.

5. Conclusion

The hybrid political status of Puerto Rico hinders its development. Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation, and therefore cannot take relevant political and economic decisions alone; meanwhile, it is not a U.S. state and so it does not have any bargaining power with Washington.

Puerto Rico has the best economic and social indicators among Latin America countries, but among the worst, if compared to other states of the United States. Puerto Ricans migrating to the U.S. mainland generally manage to enhance their living conditions. However, the U.S. has often been accused of neocolonialism because of the unequal treatment of Puerto Ricans and Washington control over crucial policies.

Ocasio Cortez Porto Rico
Figure 4: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York, 2019 (Reuters/Jose Alvarado Jr).

So far, all the referendums on the political status of Puerto Rico had no significant impact due to the lack of interest of U.S. policy. The success of the self-determination option, tacitly backed by President Biden, is hindered by multiple factors such as division within the Democratic Party, Senate Republicans filibuster and last but not least, the strong opposition of advocates of Puerto Rico statehood. As long as the current political status of Puerto Rico - at most enhanced by some concessions - will safeguard U.S. strategic interests, radical changes are unlikely over the medium term.

Therefore, the referendum on the political status of the island is insufficient without a process previously agreed with the United States over the possible scenarios on the basis of the results. Given the importance attached to the unsolved issue of Puerto Rico by the Biden-Harris administration, the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act has the merit to propose a new solution to break the long deadlock. Given the current balance of power, only the Puerto Rican diaspora can put pressure on public opinion and the establishment, while their families back home have to face daily problems, from the stagnant economic crisis to access to basic services.


The U.S.A
. and Puerto Rico between State


[1] In 2016, to tackle the debt, Congress created – by federal law PROMESA – the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMB), known as “Junta de Control Fiscal”, a body formed by members appointed by the president and in charge of debt restructuring. The Junta was accused of having adopted unsustainable austerity measures that would have permanently weakened public health, education and energy systems. [2] Holly Yan, “From a debt crisis to Hurricane Maria to a massive texting scandal: Why Puerto Rico is in chaos,” CNN, July 24, 2019, [3] Viola Stefanello, “Un’isola che vale la pena possedere: Portorico e il peso della geografia,” Limes, April 29, 2020, [4] Before, the President of the United States directly appointed governors. [5] Estadidad in Spanish. [6] John Keller, “Navy asks Raytheon to operate and maintain ROTHR over-the-horizon surveillance radar,” Military & Aerospace Electronics, April 13, 2016, [7] Letizia Gianfranceschi and Giacomo Forges, “USA 2020, i latinos al voto: Analisi del comportamento elettorale della comunità ispanica,” AMIStaDeS, December 1, 2020, [8] United States Census Bureau, HISPANIC OR LATINO ORIGIN BY SPECIFIC ORIGIN (2018), [9] CIA, The World Factbook – Puerto Rico (February 16, 2021). [10] Probably six or seven electoral votes since Iowa, with a population of 3 million people, gets 6 electoral votes, and Connecticut gets 7 electoral votes, with a population of 3.5 million inhabitants. [11] Nicole Acevedo, “New AOC, Velázquez bill on Puerto Rico's status sparks backlash from pro-statehood lawmakers,”NBC News, August 26, 2020, [12] Each state elects two senators for six-year terms. [13] Suzanne Gamboa, “What do Senate runoffs in Georgia have to do with Puerto Rico statehood?,” NBC News, December 6, 2020, [14] DIARIOPR, “Mas de 30 organizaciones de boricuas en EE.UU. piden a Biden cancelar la deuda de Puerto Rico y mucho mas,” Diario de Puerto Rico, December 17, 2020, The letter also denounces the slow response of federal agencies after Hurricane Maria, asking for immediate disaster relief funds.


● Cheatham, A. 2020 “Puerto Rico: a U.S. Territory in Crisis.” Council on Foreign Relations, November 25, 2020.

● CIA, The World Factbook – Puerto Rico, February 16, 2021.

● Gamboa, S. “What do Senate runoffs in Georgia have to do with Puerto Rico statehood?.” NBC News, December 6, 2020.

● Keller, J. “Navy asks Raytheon to operate and maintain ROTHR over-the-horizon surveillance radar.” Military & Aerospace Electronics, April 13, 2016.

● Marchionna, A. “Il dramma di Puerto Rico è già stato dimenticato.” Internazionale, November 5, 2017

● Peón, H. “It Is 2020, and Puerto Rico Is Still a Colony.” Harvard Political Review, November 22, 2020.

● Rios Maury, H. “Puerto Rico, la guerra del estatus.” Política Exterior, November 19, 2020.

● Limes. “Poca voglia di USA a Portorico.” June 14, 2017.



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