What to know about Puerto Rico's divide over its territorial status

Whether the territory becomes a state remains a divisive topic on the island.

April 27, 2021, 12:32 PM

Puerto Rico’s territorial status has been a topic of conversation among residents on the island for decades.

“It's a place that's been a colony for 500 years,” said Ed Morales, a professor at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in Columbia University and author of the book "Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico."

But conversations about equal rights for the residents of Puerto Rico -- a U.S. territory whose people are American citizens -- gained renewed momentum after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in 2017, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead and causing more than $90 billion in damage.

There are currently two bills before Congress that seek to address the nation's status and the Biden administration has said that the island should be able to choose its destiny.

While some Americans on the mainland are in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico, experts say the issue of the island’s status is still a divisive topic.

“It's always been divisive, because since the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, there have been people who have been in favor of continuing a relationship with the U.S., similar to the one that there is now. But there are people who want independence because they feel really strong about their national identity, or the people who want statehood because they want to be Americans,” Morales told ABC News.

Before 1898, Puerto Rico was under Spanish control. During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and gained sole power over the island. In 1917, the U.S. granted citizenship to the residents of Puerto Rico under the Jones Act.

Because of this history, many of Puerto Rico's residents consider the island to be the longest-held colony in the world.

Here's what to know about the debate over the island's future:

Divided on 3 options

The majority of Puerto Ricans believe that the island’s current status needs to change, but are divided on the best course of action: statehood, independence or "enhanced" commonwealth.

The territory has conducted six non-binding referendums addressing the political status, but no official change has been made.

In the last plebiscite, conducted on Nov. 3, 2020, 52% of residents voted for statehood, while 47% of residents voted against it. According to Puerto Rico’s election commission, about 52% of voters participated in the referendum.

After the results were made public, the conversation about the island’s political status made it to a national level. “There is no consensus, there is division,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told El Nuevo Dia after the vote.

For Alexandra-Marie Figueroa, a pro-independence activist, the division among Puerto Ricans is related to misinformation on the political ideologies available for Puerto Ricans.

“If you look at who has pushed these plebiscites, it has always been skewed… it has always been by the progressive statehood party, but they've never called for a coalition in which every ideology is adequately represented and every single movement has adequate resourcing to inform the public on what the position and the possibilities are,” Figueroa said.

Kevin Romero-Diaz is a political consultant and has campaigned in favor of statehood. He feels that educating the people on what statehood really represents will increase those in favor of the move.

“I'm very confident that after an educational process the people of Puerto Rico once again will vote in favor of statehood,” Romero told ABC News. “If we go out and explain and educate the citizens of the island... the percentage would be far, far wider.”

For those who believe that Puerto Rico should keep a version of the status commonly referred to as "ELA" ("Estado Libre Asociado" -- roughly translated to associated, free, state), they admit that there should be some type of change.

“The current political arrangement can be enhanced and improved,” said pro-commonwealth supporter and former senator Jose Nadal Power.

Under the Federal Relations Act of Puerto Rico there is a clause that allows Puerto Ricans to organize a government pursuant to a constitution of their own adoption. According to Nadal Power, the act should have a clause that includes “which are the limits of congressional powers over Puerto Rico."

2 potential solutions

There are two bills in Congress that address Puerto Rico's status.

The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. and Sen. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J., would call for a status convention among local legislatures elected by the Puerto Rican people. Delegates would be responsible for finding a permanent solution for the island’s territorial status.

Meanwhile, the island’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer Gonzalez, R-Puerto Rico, and congressman, Daren Soto, D-Fla., introduced the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, pushing for the territory to become the 51st state of the nation.

Despite the legislative initiatives, some believe the chances of seeing change are slim.

“I do not think those bills will reach the president's desk for his signature, but of course they are our way of starting our discussion on the political status of Puerto Rico,” Power told ABC News.

During the 2020 campaign, then Democratic candidate Joe Biden spoke at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in Florida and addressed Puerto Rico’s political status by saying that he “happen to believe statehood to be the most effective means of ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally, with equal representation at the federal level.”

In a statement to ABC News, Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, the associate director for Puerto Rico and territories, said that President Biden believes "the people of Puerto Rico have an inalienable right to choose their political destiny and the United States’ government must respect and act on that choice."

Although the conversation about the island’s political future still remains uncertain and divisive, most of its people are making a decision based on what they consider to be the best outcome for the place they call home. “I don't think it matters where you stand ideologically. I think you care about your country,” Figueroa, who supports independence said. “I think that you are making the decisions that you're making because out of the goodness of your heart, you think that you're making the right decision for your country and for your people.”

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