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The Problem with “Commonwealth”

Legislation pending before the U.S. Congress – The Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) – would authorize a new referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status. The bill gives voters a choice among three options: statehood, independence, and independence with the option of free association. Identical versions of the proposal have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate,

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) opposes the bill — and has introduced his own Puerto Rico Status Act — to add a fourth choice  called “commonwealth” to be considered among the status options.

The Two Meanings of “Commonwealth”

By introducing a different version of the PRSA, Sen. Wicker touches on one of the oldest complications of the Puerto Rico status debate: competing definitions of the term “commonwealth” as it applies to Puerto Rico.

In a 2015 New York Times opinion piece, then-Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi addressed the “commonwealth” dichotomy by essentially calling the term an empty label. As he explained, “perhaps in an effort to be polite, certain commentators refer to Puerto Rico as a “commonwealth,” implying that Puerto Rico has a special status. But this word has no practical meaning, as demonstrated by the fact that several states call themselves “commonwealths.”

Yet “commonwealth” has been used over the years as a euphemistic label to describe Puerto Rico’s current status. As Sen. Wicker claimed when he introduced his bill, adding a “commonwealth” option to the proposed plebiscite ballot “would allow Puerto Ricans to support maintaining the island’s current status.”

Maintaining Puerto Rico’s status means it remains a U.S. territory, increasingly called a “colony,” an undemocratic arrangement.

On the other hand, “commonwealth” has also been used to describe a relationship in which Puerto Rico has increased power without becoming a state or independent country. Variations on this theme include Puerto Rico as an “enhanced commonwealth” or “developed commonwealth.”

Title V of the Wicker bill – “Transition and Implementation of Commonwealth Status” – is built on this second characterization of “commonwealth.”  Title V establishes a “Bilateral Negotiation Commission” if “commonwealth” were to win the plebiscite, and pledges to “examine, discuss, and negotiate improvements” to the current status and “draft a compact agreement” for approval by Puerto Rican voters and the U.S. government.

The “commonwealth” status offered to voters in the Wicker bill appears to be something new, different, and more generous than current law, but Puerto Rico would still remain a U.S. territory.

To the extent Wicker’s “commonwealth” represents the status quo but with more benefits and rights for Puerto Rico, history shows a contrary future. Puerto Rico’s rights have only been curtailed over the years since the “commonwealth” concept was introduced in the 1952 Puerto Rican Constitution.  Since that time, federal law has been less generous to the U.S. territory than the states.  PROMESA, nutrition assistance and Medicaid provide some easy examples.

The U.S. Constitution provides no easy way for a U.S. territory to “negotiate improvements.”

The Meaning of “Commonwealth”


Two Alternatives: Statehood or Independence

There are two real-world options for the political status of Puerto Rico: statehood and independence, with or without the option to have a compact of free association.

There are 50 states now, and any new state would enter, in the words of the Supreme Court, on “equal footing” with those states. There is no uncertainty about what a state is or what statehood would mean for the people of Puerto Rico. There are 50 precedents.

Similarly, there are at least 193 independent nations, including three that have compacts of free association with the United States. A new nation of Puerto Rico would have the freedom – and obligation – to establish its own laws and government structures. Independence would require separate judicial systems, no U.S. federal programs like Medicaid, and a new government.

A twist?

Some opponents of the Puerto Rico Status Act have complained that the definition of “state” or “independent country” needs more detail. Yet, with 50 states and roughly 200 countries in the world, there is not a lot of ambiguity over either option.

There are those who want rules about the language to be spoken in a new state of Puerto Rico. Language falls under the 10th amendment to the Constitution — that is, it is up to each individual state.

There are those who want independence to include mandates on the U.S. government to provide resources or services for a newly established nation of Puerto Rico, but no country has that type of control over another independent country.

What it Really Means

The Wicker proposal claims that leaving “commonwealth” off the ballot disenfranchises voters. Yet “commonwealth” historically has two different meanings – the current U.S. territory status or some kind of “enhanced” status. Although the Wicker press release makes the case that the current status should be on a plebiscite ballot, bill text establishes a transition to a new arrangement. The Wicker bill language is inconsistent with the press release.  The bill itself does not endorse the status quo. It begs for change.

It has long been recognized that there are only two alternatives to the current status: statehood or independence. “Commonwealth” supporters need to define whether their “commonwealth” is really a state like Virginia or Pennsylvania, or a foreign country. Both of these options are already on the ballot in the PRSA proposal.

Over more than 125 years of possession by the United States, Puerto Rico’s plebiscite votes have increased in frequency. These votes have been plagued by disagreements over the meanings of the various plebiscite options, especially the term “commonwealth.” Continuing to include a “commonwealth” option on a Puerto Rico plebiscite ballot could continue confusion and impede progress towards a more democratic arrangement.


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