What do you think of when you hear Puerto Rico? Jennifer Lopez maybe, “Despacito” or possibly piña coladas. Did the word commonwealth cross your mind? How about colonialism? Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898, and a commonwealth since 1952.
A commonwealth is a political unit that has local autonomy but is voluntarily united with the U.S. according to Merriam-Webster.
The Telegraph reported that Puerto Rican citizens voted in the beginning of June to become a state of the U.S.
In order to understand what is happening in Puerto Rico a brief history lesson is necessary.
Puerto Rico was under the rule of Spain from 1493 to 1898. BBC News reported that in 1898, Puerto Rico was surrendered to the United States in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico was then a colony — a colony is a place another country has control of and makes all political decisions for it with no say from the people living there —until 1952.
In 1952, according to the BBC profile on the island, Puerto Rico was made a commonwealth; they drew up their own constitution and have a governor with a bicameral legislation. Bicameral means there is a Senate with 27 members and a House of Representatives with 51 members. In other words, it is pretty similar to the United States Constitution and how the U.S. government runs.
However, they are not a state. They have men in Puerto Rico that are in the U.S. military, but they do not get to vote for the U.S. president. When it comes to representation in the U.S., the official information web page about Puerto Rico reads they have a resident commissioner who can speak on the floor in the United States Congress, but does not get to cast a vote. They do not have anyone in the U.S. House of Representatives or chairs in the U.S. Senate.
All of this makes Puerto Rico American. They were under Spanish rule for over 400 years and a territory of the United States for just over 100, BBC News reported. Puerto Rico is also located in the Caribbean, making it closer to Latin countries. This creates a conflict of interest for the people there.
That much was made clear in the recent elections held in Puerto Rico. More than 97 percent of people who voted, voted to become a state. However, only 23 percent of the population turned up for the event.
Adriana Ballastero, grew up in Puerto Rico and is a sophomore majoring in university studies. He said there are a lot of mixed feelings in the island about becoming a state.
“If you want to be a state then you lose some of your identity,” she said.
She said she can even see this happening now with their language.
“We are supposed to be a Spanish country, but we speak ‘spanglish;’ the words are not Spanish or English,” Ballastero said. “It’s interesting to see how much English culture has changed us and how much it would change us if we became a state.”
This can be seen by looking at the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, who campaigned on the platform of seeking to become a state, BBC news reported. However, when the time came for the vote, the vote was boycotted.
Travis Thompson served his mission in Puerto Rico and is a senior studying political science.
“There is a struggle between people who want to be part of the state, and those who want to continue as a commonwealth,” Thompson said. “Once they become a state it is unlikely that they would continue with their Spanish language, and their culture will change.”
Thompson said the United States is struggling with what to do with Puerto Rico because what is currently happening seems similar to what England did to the 13 colonies.
Ballastero said everyone in Puerto Rico consider themselves a colony, not a commonwealth.
“I always felt that it was unfair that we never get to vote,” Ballastero said. “I mean if I was living in the states I get to vote, but if I am living in Puerto Rico I don’t get to vote. What the difference? I am still an American citizen.”
Adam Brewer, a faculty member who teaches political science at BYU-Idaho said there are more Puerto Ricans living in the states than live on the island.
“I think that fact alone demonstrates how important this is for the United States Congress to deal with this issue,” Brewer said.
Not only does Puerto Rico not have the opportunity to vote, they don’t get very much help from the United States. BBC News reported that Puerto Rico is in the midst of a financial crisis. The article points out U.S. laws have allowed other states that are heavily in debt to seek bankruptcy protection. Puerto Rico is 72 billion dollars in debt, and because they are not a state, they have fewer means of legal protection.
“They have remained relatively autonomous, free commonwealth, but they still are owned by the United States,” Brewer said.
If Puerto Rico had a better financial status, then maybe more Puerto Ricans would be able to stay in Puerto Rico. The current financial situation is forcing many to come to the States. CNN reported that as many as 230 Puerto Ricans leave every day.
“If Puerto Rico were a state, in terms of corporate taxes and income taxes they likely wouldn’t have the financial problems they have,” Brewer said.
Ballastero said she spent two years studying the United States in Puerto Rico and it was a bit of a shock coming to the states, and most people didn’t even know Puerto Rico was part of the United States.
“You guys don’t even know your own colonies,” Ballastero said.
Not including Puerto Rico, there are 15 other colonies or commonwealths the U.S. has possession of, including Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands, according to worldstatesman.org.