Dissecting Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth Status

in Politics by

To the memory of Vicente Géigel Polanco (1904-1979),
who denounced in real time the farce of commonwealth status

The current political relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is often summed up in the phrase commonwealth status. In this article, I summarize my answer to what commonwealth status is.

The foundations of commonwealth status: 1898-1950

Overwhelming historical evidence shows that 19th-century American political actors craved Puerto Rico. Even before the Spanish-American War broke out, and before the decision to invade Puerto Rico was implemented during that conflict, the U.S. government intended to grab Puerto Rico from Spain, one way or another. It did so, as a spoil of war.

In late 1898, the Treaty of Paris established the conditions under which Spain ceded to the United States its control over the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, while relinquishing sovereignty over Cuba. By then, American political actors and judges were conversant with hierarchical notions rooted on the idea of “race,” using it to explain and justify the domination of “whites” over the continent and its “non-white” inhabitants. 

In 1901, the first cases testing the validity of the colonial policy over the new possessions reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In providing legal benediction to colonial domination over peoples and places, the Court relied on notions of racial hierarchy. 

By then, the racialist discourse that the justices articulated had been in circulation for several decades. In essence, it said that there is an innate capacity for institution-building and self-governance, which is denied to all races but the Anglo-Saxon stock. Given that Puerto Ricans were an “alien race,” i.e., not Anglo-Saxon, they were to be governed for their own sake, and be given limited measures of self-government, from time to time and in small doses.

The 1900 congressional statute establishing a governmental structure for Puerto Rico shattered the expectations of a sector of the local elite. The Puerto Rican elite at the turn of the 20th century had a yardstick to gauge the degree of American magnanimity: the 1897 Autonomic Charter. To this day, most of the self-governing powers relinquished therein by Spain have not been enjoyed under the American flag. 

What that elite admired about the United States was both that it was an ascendant world power, and that it was a liberal democracy. The contrast with Spain could not be more obvious. But the Autonomic Charter was the outcome of a weakened Spanish regime. Power is more relevant than whether the imperial metropolis is clothed in autocratic or democratic garbs. Like their predecessors, today’s Puerto Rican politicians fail to grasp that truism.

The aforementioned discontent was not universal, as the pro-statehood faction rationalized that Puerto Ricans needed a period of tutelage before being admitted as equal citizens through statehood. Today, so-called “statehooders” are still waiting for their cherished “equality,” like the proverbial bridesmaids who never become brides. 

The 1917 Jones Act established a bicameral elected legislature—the 1900 statute only allowed the election of a lower house—and turned Puerto Ricans into American citizens. Statutory mass naturalization had been pondered at least since 1910. American political actors reasoned and calculated that such a move would further consolidate U.S. hegemony over Puerto Ricans. They were right.

American citizenship has made it easier for the U.S. government to legitimate some features of the previous U.S. nationality of Puerto Ricans, like military service. It also made Puerto Ricans feel safer in the exercise of their option of going to the U.S. mainland as they please, without the need for visas and all the hassle that foreigners have to go through. It has also given a plausible discourse to those who pine for statehood: American citizenship can only be complete through the equality and political rights that only statehood provides. 

Besides articulating the notion that statehood is a matter of civil rights—that second-class American citizenship goes against all notions of equality—statehooders have always weaponized their servility, by accusing the commonwealth/status quo faction of being closeted separatists. After World War II, the statehood faction has even labeled as “communism” all denunciations of American colonial policies. The flip side has been that the servility of statehooders has never gained them any modicum of respect. Not taken seriously, American political actors have just ignored their whining.

But it is more perverse than that, because advocating for statehood has fed millions of dollars to American political operatives, who have lobbied in Congress for a political status that American political actors have covertly, though explicitly, shunned since 1900. Statehood for Puerto Rico is viscerally rejected for the same reasons that 19thcentury legal scholars concocted what Mark S. Weiner has dubbed “Teutonic constitutionalism,” the set of ideas mentioned above, expounding that political rights in the American polity are best exercised by members of the “white race.”

The farce

Puerto Ricans did not elect their governor until 1948, and did not have a say in the details of the structure of their local government until 1952. In 1950, Congress passed Act 600, which authorized Puerto Ricans to convene a convention, in order to draft a local constitution. That statute kept in place all the provisions of the 1917 Jones Act which contained the fine print of American hegemony. Also, the president and Congress had to approve the constitution in order to be implemented.

Thus, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not actually a constitution, because it was not an exercise of a people’s sovereignty. No sovereign people would need permission from another entity to give itself a constitutional regime. 

Since the Treaty of Paris, only the U.S. government is sovereign in Puerto Rico, and its legislative branch wields “plenary power” over it and its inhabitants; it has continued to do so under “commonwealth status.” At the mercy of Congress, Puerto Ricans do not live under a constitutional regime, and are still cut off from the rest of the world, unable to have diplomatic or commercial relations with other countries.

Beginning in 1953, federal courts and the Puerto Rico Supreme Court concocted and repeated a notion (doctrine would be too generous a term), which states that Puerto Ricans “consented” to American domination. That is, that they consented to be governed without their consent, through a generic acquiescence to whatever present and future federal laws and executive actions would be passed and implemented. That was supposedly the price Puerto Ricans paid for the “privilege” of finally enjoying “full local self-government.”

After World War II, the U.S. government paid lip service to decolonization, while implementing the smart move of letting Puerto Ricans of the early 1950s vote in referenda for or against Act 600 of 1950, and for the constitution that took effect in 1952. The electoral gambit, the “will of the Puerto Rican people,” was thereafter used to conceal colonial domination, and even legitimize it.

A devastated realm

So what is commonwealth status? The easy answer would be that it is the third structural permutation of the same colonial condition that has lasted for more than 120 years. 

But commonwealth status is also the triumph of power as domination, in this case, American hegemony over us Puerto Ricans. It is our stagnation. It is the ineffective, futile whining of the statehood faction, which acts as if American political actors can do no wrong, while seemingly ignoring its more-than-centennial lack of influence on them. 

It is the cowardice and ethical barrenness of the advocates of the status quo, who call themselves “autonomists” to connect with a supposedly dignified political tradition that never bore fruit. It is the desolation caused by corporate, predatory capitalism, which chews human beings and spits them out, protected and enabled by deregulation and other criminal public policies.

It is the corruption of a useless cadre of Puerto Rican politicians, with no agenda but their fat bellies. It is the filling of judicial posts with minions, with no depth, no culture, no juridical acumen and no ethics, appointed as judges only because of their partisan and familial connections. It is the destruction of public service, by eliminating all semblances of meritocracy and efficiency.

The commonwealth status is the forced, unbalanced transformation of a rural, poor society of exploited farmhands into a frenetic, almost soulless mass of consumers of American products and entertainment. Too busy driving our cars, working or not working to death, with no inclination or time to pause and smell the roses, read books, listen to good music, think, ponder, and engage in conversations and action, we linger aimlessly. 

It is colonial domination. It is dystopia, with mass migration, a deficit of children among a preponderance of seniors, in a demographic dead end on which mostly American hoarders are already cashing in. Today, Puerto Ricans still in the archipelago live in a ruined realm.

Commonwealth status is synonymous with pessimism and hopelessness. It is the mindless devastation of a once vibrant people, whose cultural maladies were not addressed, but used as an excuse to do nothing. Adrift, commonwealth status is a ship with no sails.

Roberto Ariel Fernández is the author of six law journal articles about constitutional issues, including the Puerto Rican colonial history. His 2004 book, 'El constitucionalismo y la encerrona colonial de Puerto Rico,' can be found at the libraries of Princeton and Yale.

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