Puerto Rico Votes on Status: A Primer on Independence

As Puerto Ricans get close to Election Day, voters will face three non-territorial (read: colonial) options regarding their political relationship with the United States. These options are: Independence, Sovereign Commonwealth and Statehood. The current status, “commonwealth” is a territorial status since it falls under the U.S. Constitution’s territorial clause, as was recently confirmed by the Congressional Research Service. This article will explain, in greater detail, the option of independence.

Puerto Rico has always maintained an independence movement, perhaps much to the envy of Alaska and Todd Palin. During the first half of the 20th century, the independence movement was a forced to be reckoned with, although falling short of being a majority in the Island. During the second half of the 20th century, the independence movement was reduced to single digits by a combination of factors, including but not limited to: (1) The growth of a larger middle class; (2) Intense persecution of Independence supporters by the Federal government under the infamous COINTELPRO program; (3) A likewise intense persecution of supporters by the state government under the “Carpetas” program; and (4) The movement of independence supporters to the Popular Democratic Party as a means to an end to stop statehood. This is by no means an exhaustive list of factors, but they are the main four factors that have shrunk the Independence movement into a single digit constituency. That said, and recognizing that the majority of voters would not select it over statehood or any version of the Commonwealth status, it has always remained a staple in our politics.

If voters were to choose Independence, the newly elected sovereignty would not happen overnight. Puerto Rico would petition, and Congress would consider, a multi-year transition plan in which Puerto Rico would move towards independence from the U.S., including but not limited to: (1) Transferring or apportioning social security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans benefits contributions/entitlements that have already been paid for; (2) Determining the rights or manner of naturalization for Boricuas born in an Independent Puerto Rico when both parents are U.S. Citizens; (3) Military relations and alliances and (4) Determining the role of the existing U.S. District Court under an independent Puerto Rico, since federal jurisdiction would cease to exist.

As far as citizenship goes, Puerto Ricans who currently have U.S. Citizenship cannot be stripped of said citizenship merely because of Puerto Rico’s newly found status. However, people born under the new republic would not be entitled to automatic citizenship. The US may, at its prerogative, provide a quicker path towards citizenship for Puerto Ricans born in the Island to U.S. Citizens, but that by no means is a guarantee. The potential loss of citizenship has always been a hard pill to swallow for Puerto Ricans, but those who support independence recognize that it is a benefit that cannot exist in an independent Puerto Rico.

On the budget, Puerto Rico currently spends close to 4 dollars in federal funds for every 1 dollar it generates stateside. While significant portions of those funds are entitlements, a greater portion is not. An independent Puerto Rico would need to find a manner to make up the shortfall within the transition time, which is ultimately agreed to by Congress. By the same token, Puerto Rico has nearly half of its population living under or near poverty levels, receiving some type of government assistance (mostly federally funded). Thus, it is quite possible Puerto Rico would experience a significant population transfer of U.S. Citizens to the mainland, given worries and anxieties of their benefits in the Island versus those on the mainland.

However, proponents of independence claim that said option is the only one that guarantees freedom from judicial and legal decisions from other nations (the U.S.) that bind Puerto Rico in ways contrary to Puerto Rico’s self-interest. They argue that Puerto Rico would benefit from greater economic freedom by being able to trade with other nations, free itself from the shackles of the Jones Act, and do away with over burdening federal regulation.

Finally, while independence will probably not garner enough votes to win (based on how independence has 4 – 5% of the vote in previous referendums), it remains to be seen how it could ultimately make people in Congress wary of accepting a tropical Quebec if statehood wins. On November 6th, if Puerto Ricans finally vote against the colonial situation, we may begin to find out.