Recent headlines out of Puerto Rico took an unforeseeable turn as the island inaugurated its second new governor in less than a week. The newest governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, replaced Pedro Pierluisi after the territory’s supreme court ruled the latter’s ascent to power was unconstitutional.

The gubernatorial scramble began a couple of weeks ago with the release of hundreds of pages of offensive texts between then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his staff. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets until Rosselló resigned. Puerto Ricans are still mobilized, and some now call for Vázquez to step down amid widespread concerns that she helped cover for the corruption that preceded Rosselló’s downfall.

“Puerto Rico is in severe crisis,” says Professor Rogers Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. “The protests that led to Governor Rosselló’s resignation are set against a record of ineffectiveness, both local and emanating from Washington, D.C., and corruption that has deepened all these problems. Nothing is getting better right now, though it is possible matters have hit bottom and a time for change has come.”


Puerto Rico protesters
Protesters in Puerto Rico celebrate after Governor Rosselló’s resignation. (Wikimedia Commons/Daryana Rivera)

history of inequality and otherness

Puerto Rico has been a part of the United States since 1898. The Caribbean island was administered by the Spanish Empire for hundreds of years until the U.S. seized it, along with the Philippines and a host of other regions, after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War.

White leaders in the United States weren’t sure what to do. Puerto Rico and the other acquisitions were potentially valuable as far-flung colonies, but admitting them as territories meant their eventual statehood.

Smith says, “There were desires among many in the U.S. government to operate a military empire without having to deal with any local opposition at their imperial sites. Racial ideologies in the U.S., furthermore, held that Puerto Ricans were unfit for self-governance.”

Court decisions and laws that attempted to define Puerto Rico

A practical solution was found in 1901 when the Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell founded the constitutional innovation now known as the “unincorporated territory.” These regions would be managed by the United States Congress. Their peoples would have no voting representation in Washington, D.C., and they would not have a path to statehood.

Legal maneuvers throughout the 20th century served to grant or strip additional freedoms from the people of Puerto Rico with reckless abandon. In 1917, for instance, Congress passed the Jones Act to simultaneously extend birthright citizenship to Puerto Ricans and establish a locally elected bicameral legislature. The 1922 Supreme Court decision Balzac v. Porto Rico, meanwhile, determined that the cultural/racial differences between Puerto Ricans and whites in the United States meant that the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights needn’t be fully enforced on the island.

Then, in 1952, Congress extended Puerto Rico’s heretofore unknown local autonomy by redesignating it a “commonwealth.” Washington, D.C., however, unambiguously retained its power to review, rescind, or establish any law passed in Puerto Rico.

“The Commonwealth-crafting legislation makes Puerto Rico somewhat distinct from the other unincorporated territories but their status is fundamentally the same,” says Smith. “Those statuses are indeed a sort of strange limbo — as the Supreme Court has said, the island and its peoples are for many legal and political purposes ‘foreign in a domestic sense.’”

Soaring debt, Hurricane Maria, and paper towels

Today, Puerto Rico retains its official designation as both a commonwealth and unincorporated territory. This has had real-world consequences for the island that extends far beyond abstract rights to vote or self-government.

For instance, the island’s economy has been on the verge of total collapse for years. One of the primary reasons stems from legislation passed by Congress in 1996 that phased out subsidies for bonds issued by Puerto Rico to fund pensions, social programs, and other expensive essential services. When those subsidies ended in 2006, Puerto Rico could no longer pay back the bonds and summarily lost the lion’s share of its budget.

“Puerto Rico’s economic failures are a drain, though not a massive drain, on the whole U.S. economy. They have also precipitated heightened migration to the mainland, aggravating tensions over Latinx immigrants — though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they are not always perceived as such, including by the current president,” says Smith.

These money issues exacerbated the blow dealt Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017. The Category 5 tempest killed 2,975 people in Puerto Rico and wrought devastation across the island.

Hurricane Maria aftermath in Puerto Rico
CBP employees from the Office of Field Operations (OFO) remove debris from an orphanage near San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Wikimedia Commons)

Following the havoc of the storm, Puerto Rico’s entire electric grid shut down. Most residents live on the north of the island, while the same federal incentives that induced the Puerto Rican government to fund its economy with bonds convinced contractors to cheaply build generating facilities all along the southern coast. When those incentives dried up alongside the bond subsidies in 1996, the power grid remained and fell into disrepair. Maria’s force decimated the fragile and diffuse grid, creating one of the longest-lasting power outages in world history.

While the island’s electric problem is basically fixed, memories of antipathy from Washington still scar the island’s residents. This antipathy manifested during recovery efforts when President Donald Trump visited San Juan and was photographed jovially tossing rolls of paper towels to Puerto Ricans who were in shock, in sadness, and in grief.

Smith says, “Hurricane Maria accelerated Puerto Rico’s already deep economic decline and inflamed tensions between Puerto Ricans and the current administration over federal aid for, and governance over, Puerto Rico.”

The improbability of statehood, the need for change

Neither the efforts of Congress nor the Supreme Court have been able to fully disentangle Puerto Rico from the notion of statehood, or total independence. Proponents for either option have existed since the U.S. first annexed the island. It’s possible that current events could draw so much attention to Puerto Rico that people elsewhere pay attention and demand action.

“All could change. The only legitimate rationale for maintaining the status quo, in my view, is if Puerto Ricans want to maintain it,” says Smith.

Support for statehood is decidedly mixed. Gallup shows that the island’s leadership is split on the issue, while recent votes indicate massive support, but tepid turnouts. Two-thirds of Americans on the mainland continuously support statehood, but only if it’s what Puerto Ricans want. Mainlanders’ opinions on island politics are clouded, however, by the fact that upwards of half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Smith states that the path to statehood could, in theory, begin and end by congressional action within two years. Given widespread misconceptions about the island and disagreements on the right path forward, change is unlikely. The close, if fraught history between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has rendered the two, perhaps, too tangled up to ever fully separate.

Smith says, “The status of Puerto Rico is an international embarrassment for the United States, as much of the world see it as a colony, a legacy of imperialism, and one that the U.S. is treating very badly. The governments of Puerto Rico and the United States need better leaders, really committed to improving conditions in Puerto Rico in line with, first and foremost, the preferences of its people.”