Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea, located about 1,000 miles (1,610 km) southeas of Florida. Puerto Rico is referred to as an unincorporated territory or possession of the United States, along with such islands as American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas, and the US Virgin Islands. Residents of these territories are considered US citizens, although their rights and responsibilities differ somewhat from those of citizens who reside in states. Among the fourteen US territories, Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas (located in the western North Pacific Ocean) hold special status as self-governing commonwealths, which means they both have a written constitution and a greater degree of autonomy to conduct their affairs. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico comprises the main island of Puerto Rico as well as the smaller islands of Vieques and Culebra and over one hundred uninhabited islands.
The relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico has been a topic of debate since the island first came under US control in 1898. Proponents of maintaining Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, while few, claim that the arrangement provides island residents with many benefits, including US citizenship, US military protection, and access to federal social services. Furthermore, they argue, the island's commonwealth status helps to preserve Puerto Rican cultural identity. Critics, on the other hand, assert that the United States' treatment of Puerto Rico is a form of colonialism that denies residents both the rights associated with full statehood and the sovereignty granted to independent nations. In a June 2017 referendum for residents of the island, 97 percent of voters expressed a preference for formally joining the United States as the fifty-first state. Opponents of statehood have challenged the veracity of the referendum, noting low voter turnout with only 23 percent of registered voters participating. Many political and economic obstacles to statehood remain in place, however, and it appears unlikely that the US Congress will act to change Puerto Rico's status. The effects of Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in 2017, and its aftermath have also complicated the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US mainland.
Acquisition and Migration
For over 500 years, foreign powers have determined the political administration of Puerto Rico. When Christopher Columbus became the first European explorer to arrive on the island in 1493, he found an island populated by Taíno and Carib Indians. Within a few years, Spain had claimed the island as a colony and military outpost. Spanish settlers established large plantations to produce sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee, and they imported nearly 27,000 enslaved Africans as a source of labor. After over four centuries of Spanish rule, most Puerto Ricans could trace their genealogy to native islander, African, and Spanish origins.
The United States took possession of Puerto Rico and several other Spanish colonies in 1898 at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. As part of an effort to assimilate the island, the US government offered tax incentives to encourage development and, in 1902, introduced English as an official language of Puerto Rico. In 1917 Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted US citizenship to the 1.2 million residents of Puerto Rico and authorized them to establish an elected government.
As US citizens, the people of Puerto Rico became free to travel or live anywhere in the United States without a visa or passport. Large numbers of Puerto Ricans chose to migrate to the mainland in the years following World War II. The Puerto Rican population of New York City, for instance, grew from 13,000 in 1945 to 50,000 the following year, with many newcomers settling in a neighborhood that became known as Spanish Harlem. Within a decade, the Puerto Rican population of the continental United States reached 700,000. With the island's economy mired in a depression, many migrants came seeking jobs in response to recruiting efforts by factory owners and other employers. The migration accelerated as air travel became an affordable option, eliminating the need for a long sea voyage. By 2013 more people of Puerto Rican descent lived on the mainland (5.1 million) than on the island (3.5 million). An influx of Puerto Ricans arrived in the mainland United States following the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Though the extent of Maria outmigration remains to be officially calculated, CNN has reported that the US Postal Service received over 6,500 change-of-address requests from zip codes in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to zip codes in at least forty-eight states between the hurricane and the end of 2017, an increase of 500 percent over the same time period the previous year. Experts have questioned the likelihood these Puerto Ricans will return to the island, noting that the destruction of homes and schools as well as loss of employment opportunities may deter remigration.
Government of Puerto Rico
In 1950 Congress authorized Puerto Rico to draft a constitution. When the constitution was formally adopted on July 25, 1952, Puerto Rico became an autonomous, self-governing commonwealth in association with the United States. The government of Puerto Rico includes a governor who is elected to serve a four-year term in office, and a legislature consisting of two branches, a twenty-seven-seat senate, and a fifty-one-seat house of representatives.
As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico controls its own internal affairs, much like US states. Puerto Rico's government has the same powers granted to states under the US Constitution, including the powers to pass and enforce laws, create a budget, establish schools, and grant licenses. The president of the United States is the head of state for Puerto Rico, and the federal government controls foreign relations, immigration, trade, currency, military protection, postal service, and other functions outlined in the US Constitution.
Although residents of Puerto Rico have most of the same rights and obligations as residents of the fifty states, there are a few notable differences. For example, Puerto Rico residents are not eligible to vote in US presidential or congressional elections. They can express their preferences for certain presidential candidates, however, by participating in presidential primaries. In 2016 candidate Marco Rubio received 75 percent of votes cast in Puerto Rico's Republican primary, while Hillary Clinton claimed 61 percent in the Democratic primary. Puerto Rico also does not receive voting representation in the US Congress. Instead, every four years, residents of the island elect a nonvoting delegate known as a resident commissioner to represent their interests in Washington, DC.
Puerto Rico also differs from US states in that residents do not pay federal income taxes except on work they perform within the United States or as federal employees. Workers in Puerto Rico do have a portion of their wages deducted to contribute to Social Security and Medicare, however, and they are eligible for certain welfare benefits from these and other federal programs. Because of Puerto Rico's territory status, Puerto Ricans have little say in how federal programs operate and may receive their benefits in a limited way. Federal funding for Medicaid, for example, is capped, and the federal matching rate for financing Medicaid is fixed at 55 percent while such funding for states is not limited and federal matching rates for states can fluctuate as high as 83 percent based on the state's per capita income.
Debate over Status
The political status of Puerto Rico is a source of ongoing debate. On June 11, 2017, Puerto Rican officials held a plebiscite (a direct vote on a question of public interest, usually regarding a change in government) for the fifth time in thirty years to gauge voters' opinions about the nature of the island's relationship with the United States. Voters were asked to express a preference for one of the following options: remaining a commonwealth of the United States, petitioning to become the fifty-first US state, entering a compact of free association with the United States (an affiliation defined by international law in which sovereign states mutually agree to maintain close political, economic, and military ties), or separating from the United States to become an independent nation. Proponents of independence argue that it would help preserve Puerto Rico's language and culture and invigorate its economy, while opponents point out that cutting ties to the United States would cost Puerto Ricans their US citizenship and its benefits.
The results of the nonbinding 2017 referendum indicated that 97 percent of Puerto Rican voters favored statehood. Critics claimed that the near-unanimous support was misleading, however, because only 23 percent of Puerto Rico's 2.2 million registered voters participated in the plebiscite. By comparison, 77.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the previous plebiscite, held in 2012. Critics blamed the 2017 plebiscite's historically low turnout on boycotts by voters who felt that the ballot language was confusing or promoted statehood over other options. Supporters of Puerto Rican statehood, on the other hand, argued that migration to the United States had reduced the number of voters left on the island. They also pointed out that many members of Congress had been elected to office with lower rates of voter participation within their states.
Mobilized in part by frustrations from ongoing dealings with the federal government, the Puerto Rican government sought to force Congress to accept the results of the 2017 referendum and recognize Puerto Rico as a state. A delegation, including five potential members of the House of Representatives and two senators, arrived in Washington, DC, in January 2018, asserting their mandate to represent Puerto Rico in Congress. Historically, US territories have found success in forcing Congress to accept them as states by preemptively sending shadow congressional delegations in anticipation of statehood recognition. The strategy earned the nickname "the Tennessee Plan" after securing statehood for Tennessee in 1796 and has subsequently helped Alaska, California, Michigan, and other states join the Union. The strategy did not, however, help Puerto Rico achieve its objective, as Congress showed little interest in the delegation and did not grant them voting power.
Proponents of statehood suggested that the results of the 2017 plebiscite reflected a gradual shift in Puerto Rican voters' attitudes toward joining the United States as the fifty-first state. In referendums held in 1967, 1993, and 1998, a majority voted against statehood, although the results were considered inconclusive because of confusion about the other alternatives presented on the ballots. In the 2012 plebiscite, 54 percent expressed a desire to change the island's political status. In a separate ballot question, 61 percent chose statehood as their preferred alternative, 33 percent favored free association, and 6 percent opted for independence. In September 2018, one year after Hurricane Maria, a poll of Puerto Rican residents conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post found that 48 percent of respondents preferred for Puerto Rico to be admitted as a US state, 26 percent wished it to remain an unincorporated territory, and 10 percent desired independence for Puerto Rico, with the remaining 16 percent unsure or not responding.
Puerto Rico's Debt Crisis
Puerto Ricans also cite the depressed state of the commonwealth's economy as a key reason for increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo. The economy of Puerto Rico benefitted significantly from a tax loophole created in 1976 that enabled US corporations to operate on the island while paying very little federal tax, but the government repealed the loophole in 1996, phasing it completely out by 2006. The elimination of this incentive, combined with local government mismanagement and overspending, produced high unemployment rates and $72 billion in unpaid debt, which forced Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy in May 2017. Congress responded to the island's growing debt crisis by passing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which created a federally appointed, seven-member board to assume control of Puerto Rico's budget and negotiate with its creditors. Although many observers saw the move as necessary, critics derided PROMESA as paternalistic and claimed that it effectively revoked Puerto Rico's right to self-govern. Prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico had made commitments to pay a fraction of its debts by 2022. In January 2018, as the local government gained a better understanding of the extent of the recovery effort, local leaders announced a debt moratorium in which it would not pay creditors for five years and requested additional federal assistance for the recovery to prevent the island from going deeper into debt.
The ongoing financial crisis has forced Puerto Rico to increase taxes on residents and businesses and reduce government services. Census data from 2015 indicated that nearly half of Puerto Rico's population had income below the federal poverty level. Many Puerto Ricans left the island in search of better jobs and opportunities. Some experts worry that the exodus of young professionals and families could create a brain drain that will further reduce Puerto Rico's tax base.
Proponents of statehood argue that it would provide a much-needed influx of federal funding to help alleviate Puerto Rico's debt crisis and stimulate its economy. It would also give island residents a voice in federal government decisions affecting them. At the same time, however, the commonwealth's dire financial situation may reduce its chances of achieving statehood. The US Congress has the sole constitutional authority to create new states, and many members have expressed reluctance to make the major investments needed to secure Puerto Rico's future. In the absence of a statute passed by Congress, Puerto Rico's commonwealth status will remain in effect.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane that had reached category 5 level days earlier, swept across the island, causing catastrophic damage. The winds and floods destroyed much of the island's infrastructure. More than 90 percent of the island's cell towers lost service. Electrical power remained shut off for many residents until nearly a year later, with the government reporting almost complete restoration in August 2018. Similarly, over half of the island's residents did not have access to running water in the weeks following the hurricane. By June 2018 the government reported that over 90 percent of residents had access to clean drinking water. Several health experts challenged the government's claim, however, noting that Puerto Rico's state-owned water utility had struggled to provide clean water before the hurricane and repeatedly faced legal action for violating the Clean Water Act. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands experienced $90 billion in property damage. The damage created a housing crisis and exacerbated Puerto Rico's existing economic problems. Though local governments typically cover 25 percent of emergency response services, President Donald Trump authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund the entire operation, approving the spending of over $5 billion for public and individual assistance. Despite these commitments, FEMA encountered several challenges, which the agency blamed on poor preparation and a lack of staff. The poor state of the island's infrastructure also complicated recovery efforts, creating challenges for the delivery of aid.
Reports on the loss of human life varied in the wake of the disaster, with the government of Puerto Rico first reporting sixteen deaths in the days immediately following the hurricane and then raising the number to sixty-four in December 2017. An independent study conducted by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, however, discovered that death certification procedures in Puerto Rico led to an underreporting of deaths caused by the hurricane. The study determined that the hurricane was responsible for at least 2,975 deaths—including many of the island's elderly, infirm, and low-income populations who died in the months following the hurricane—because infrastructure issues, especially the lack of reliable electrical power, prevented them from receiving proper health care and other necessary services. Considering loss of life as well as migration, the study also provided an estimate of Puerto Rico's population, contending that the population dropped significantly in the months following the storm from 3.328 million in September 2017 to 3.048 million in February 2018.
President Trump and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) attracted criticism from Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló and San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for the slow federal response to the hurricane. Further straining the relationship between Puerto Rico and the federal government, President Trump made several public comments in the press and on social media, placing the burden of the recovery on Puerto Rico while praising the federal government for what many considered to be an inadequate response. One year after the hurricane, Trump challenged public assessments of the damage wrought by the hurricane and the effectiveness of recovery efforts, questioned the veracity of the Milken Institute's determination that nearly 3,000 people had died, described as the Mayor of San Juan as "totally incompetent," and said he was an "absolute no" on the issue of statehood because of his dispute with her.