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A New Way To Resolve Status Indecision In P.R.


May 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The issue of status has been a perpetual perplexity for this colonial possession of the U.S. None of the three available alternatives--Commonwealth, statehood or independence--has been able to command decisive majority support, either on the island or in the U.S. Congress, and recent years have seen a marked rise in Puerto Rico nationalism, which adds new urgency to the situation.

To resolve this, I suggest a simple approach based on recognition that the core problem is the unequal U.S. citizenship that was imposed on Puerto Rico in 1917. Since Congress was the source of that problem, Congress should logically be held responsible for devising a solution. It is not enough for Congress to just say, "It’s up to the P.R. people to decide what they want." That sounds fair and democratic, but it amounts to a cop-out because nobody on the island can make an intelligent status decision until the terms and consequences of each status choice are clearly defined by the controlling colonial power--which is the U.S. Congress.

What is the point of another plebiscite offering an enhanced Commonwealth as a choice that may have electoral appeal on the island but will run head-on into Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees its disapproval by Congress? Similarly, what is the point of a plebiscite promising some special kind of statehood that expects to get separate treatment yet continues to be a non-English-speaking sector of an English-speaking nation--when that unequal proposition is also guaranteed rejection by the U.S. Congress? Ironically, the only status that is clearly self-defined and would win rapid approval by Congress (and the watching world) is a majority P.R. vote for independence. But that is not likely, and it is necessary to depart from this pattern of proven failures.

The way out of this maze is for the U.S. Congress to issue a formal clarification regarding the future automatic granting of U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico. Equal citizenship is the real defining issue in the status question. The U.S. has a right, indeed an obligation, to ensure that the terms of its citizenship are fair and equal to all citizens. The separate automatic U.S. citizenship that was imposed on P.R. in 1917 has observably failed to live up to its designed purpose, which was to instill a shared sense and pride of belonging to an American nationality. It’s clear that sense exists on the mainland U.S., but it is equally clear that it does not exist today in P.R., which insists on its own separate non-American identity, a separate language, and specific nonobservance of the patriotic rituals that unite the rest of America such as the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, and respect for the U.S. flag.

As it has emerged, U.S. citizenship in P.R. is a deviant strain that is out of step with the rest of America. In light of these circumstances, Congress has a responsibility to redefine the terms of automatic citizenship and to require that those terms be equal for all citizens. Since this is a change, P.R. deserves the opportunity to accept or refuse the new terms.

That basic decision should precede any status choice, and making that priority decision will immediately clarify any subsequent status choices. Trying to decide status without resolving the issue of unequal citizenship is putting the cart before the horse and an invitation to further indecision.

Here’s how a formal proposal from Congress could work:

  • Congress to decree that as of 2006, all U.S. citizens will receive equal treatment in terms of federal financial benefits and obligations. This means that P.R. will start paying federal taxes just like the rest of U.S. citizens. Separate terms for different regions are not acceptable because separate is not equal.
  • Congress to require that all areas under the U.S. flag receiving the benefit of U.S. federal funds shall immediately implement the effective teaching of English in public schools--with future funding to be tied to measurable results. This should have no impact on the desirable acquisition or preservation of other languages.
  • Congress to formally clarify that the privileges and protections of U.S. citizenship presume a primary national loyalty to the U.S.A., as is clearly stated in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Oath of U.S. Citizenship. To ensure public awareness of this, the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance should be required in all public schools receiving U.S. federal funds--just as practiced daily in the U.S.

There is nothing here that will offend or require changes from the U.S. citizens living in the states, so the proposals are politically neutral and uncontroversial in the U.S. In Puerto Rico, the decision to accept or decline the equal terms of U.S. citizenship as defined above will be simple but significant. For the first time, it will oblige islanders to honestly decide whether they want to be American in the full sense of the definition, rather than just in the present sense of financial expedience. As such, this decision will give both P.R. and the U.S. Congress an accurate navigational fix as to where the hearts and minds of islanders are.

It is an elementary principle of navigation that one cannot determine a proper course without first accurately knowing where you are. A vote to either accept or reject new, equal terms of U.S. citizenship would clearly reveal the island’s position for the first time.

By obliging P.R. to confront the central issue of whether or not the island should be an equal part of America, the whole status issue is immediately simplified. If P.R. votes to accept the new terms of equal citizenship, the choice then becomes either statehood or Commonwealth in honest form. If P.R. votes to refuse the new terms of equal citizenship, that can only mean one thing--independence. (Here it would be important for Congress to accompany the ballot with some explanation as to how and when that could take place.) The island has a right to expect a phased-in plan for independence with ample financial support from the U.S. for at least 10 years. This will require imagination and generosity, but given the well-established democratic tradition and well-trained local government on the island, creating an independent nation in P.R will be a lot easier and less expensive than in some of the other areas where the U.S. is undertaking to build nations.

Thus the cure consists of a simple but profound change: Make the terms of U.S. citizenship equal for all citizens. It is entirely within the rights of the U.S. government to establish and enforce that equality. Indeed, it is manifestly unfair to the vast majority of U.S. citizens to allow a minority to operate under separate rules--particularly when the tax-paying majority is required to finance the non-tax-paying minority to the tune of $19 billion each year.

Under these new terms, the issue of P.R. status would have political relevance and resonance for the U.S. Congress for the first time. Equal citizenship in terms of benefits and obligation is something all their constituents and the international community would approve. And giving the island the option to accept or refuse equal citizenship is a fairness that was not present in the original imposition of citizenship in 1917.

For 50 years, I have watched as chronic status indecision has dominated political discussion in P.R., consistently generating more heat than light. The only way out of this paralysis is for the governing authority--the U.S. Congress--to take the lead, define fair terms for a choice by P.R., and then require that choice. As previously explained, the core issue to be resolved first is whether P.R. citizens want to be part of America on equal terms with the rest of the citizens. Discovering that key fact by a specific plebiscite will then clearly guide a rational, subsequent status decision.

This plan has the cardinal virtue of being simple, fair, and doable. It is capable of generating active Congressional support, yet it properly leaves the ultimate decision to the P.R people. It is a new way forward.

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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