Congressional leaders have sidelined one of the more promising efforts to end U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.
Following months of progress on a landmark bill that would enable the people of Puerto Rico to vote on a post-territorial status for their nation, the newly seated Congress has dropped the issue. At a Senate committee hearing last month, U.S. senators paid little attention to repeated calls by Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi to move forward with the legislation and end Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States.
“For far too long, the U.S. Senate has looked the other way to avoid righting the colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s status,” Pierluisi said in a written statement to the committee.
For nearly 125 years, Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States. Under the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court cases from the early twentieth century, Puerto Rico and other U.S. island territories are classified as “unincorporated” territories of the United States. The Supreme Court’s framework enables the United States to rule the territories as colonies and deprive their residents of equal rights.
The people of Puerto Rico, who were granted U.S. citizenship by Congress in the early twentieth century, lack many of the same rights as U.S. citizens living in the states. Islanders do not have full voting representation in Congress. They cannot vote in presidential elections, despite the fact that the president can send them into war. They pay taxes that fund social programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, but they receive fewer benefits. Essentially, the people of Puerto Rico are treated as second-class citizens.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress is not required to include Puerto Rico in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which provides benefits to poor elderly Americans and poor Americans with disabilities. Although Congress has extended the program to some U.S. territories, it has excluded Puerto Rico and other territories. Consequently, Puerto Ricans can receive SSI benefits while they are living in the states but not while they are living in Puerto Rico.
“If you believe in equality, you cannot expect the American citizens in Puerto Rico to consent to discrimination and unequal treatment,” Pierluisi said.
Many Puerto Ricans view the island’s territorial status as a reason for their unequal treatment, but they disagree over what to do about it. Some islanders want Puerto Rico to declare its independence from the United States. Others hope that Puerto Rico will join the United States as the 51st state. Many desire some kind of middle ground that would preserve U.S. citizenship while establishing autonomy for a Puerto Rican nation.
The Puerto Rican government has held several non-binding plebiscites on the nation’s status, but each one has been mired in controversy, making the results open to interpretation. The last plebiscite, held in November 2020, resulted in 52 percent of voters opting for statehood, but only a slight majority of registered voters cast ballots.
Historically, Congress has shown little interest in decolonizing Puerto Rico. Some officials have strongly criticized U.S. colonial control of the island nation, but they have introduced opposing bills, with some geared toward independence and others focused on statehood.
Over the past year, a growing number of Democratic politicians have grown increasingly convinced of the need to change the colonial status quo. Starting from this common ground, they have created a compromise bill, the Puerto Rico Status Act, that would enable the people of Puerto Rico to choose among three options: independence, statehood, or a compact of free association with the United States.
“Our agreement will allow our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico to determine their own future,” Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said in May 2022, when he and several of his colleagues introduced their plans.
Over the next several months, many Democrats came to support the bill. During a debate on the House floor in December, several representatives made unusually strong statements against U.S. colonialism and called for passage of the legislation.
Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) criticized U.S. colonialism for destroying the Puerto Rican economy, dividing the Puerto Rican people, undermining the dignity of the Puerto Rican people, and making Puerto Rico dependent on the United States.
“Colonialism is not only humiliating for Puerto Rico, but it is an embarrassment to the United States,” Velázquez said. The United States “stands up to imperialist tyrants abroad while keeping colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific.”
“The time has come to fully decolonize Puerto Rico,” she said.
Representative Darren Soto (D-FL), who expressed similar concerns, declared that “it is time to set our people free.” The U.S. government, Soto insisted, must provide the people of Puerto Rico with the opportunity to choose their own form of government.
“The Puerto Rico Status Act will finally allow Puerto Ricans to throw off their colonial bonds, finally end their territorial status, and choose for themselves,” he said.
Following additional discussion, including some pushback from Republicans who called for more time to consider the issue, the House voted on the bill, which passed 232 to 191, largely along party lines. All Democrats voted in favor of the bill, and 16 Republicans joined them.
On the day of the vote, the Biden administration acknowledged in a statement that the people of Puerto Rico “have not received the full rights and benefits of their citizenship.” President Biden called on Congress to “act swiftly to put the future of Puerto Rico’s political status in the hands of Puerto Ricans, where it belongs.”
Since then, however, there has been little movement in Washington. Now that the Republicans have acquired a majority in the House, Democratic leaders have seen few options for moving forward with the legislation.
Representative Bruce Westerman (R-AR), who has dismissed the bill as “a partisan play,” now chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, which would have to restart the legislative process in the House for the bill to be considered by the current Congress.
At last month’s Senate hearing on the U.S. territories, no representatives of either party raised the issue. They ignored Pierluisi’s statements in support of the Puerto Rico Status Act, including his insistence that the Senate “not allow this important opportunity to pass by.”
“Puerto Rico will remain hindered until our century-long status question is resolved,” Pierluisi said.
Unmoved by such concerns, the current congressional leadership has shown little interest in moving forward with the plebiscite. Despite the strong anti-colonial sentiment that many House leaders expressed on the House floor just a few months ago, the momentum for change has come to a halt.
By opting for inaction, congressional leaders are preserving an oppressive colonial system that denies the people of Puerto Rico their most fundamental human rights.
This first appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.