Puerto Rico's Political Status Under Its New Constitution

Published date01 December 1952
Date01 December 1952
Subject MatterArticles
Louisiana State University
PROBLEM OF Puerto Rico’s political status, which has for so
~ long clouded the island’s relations with the mainland, is not primarily
~ an expression of resistance to cultural absorption by a numerically
stronger community of a heterogeneous and vigorous tradition. Rather,
the issue is eminently political in nature and dates back to the mid-
nineteenth century when Puerto Rico was still subject to Spanish sover-
eignty. The only successful Puerto Rican revolution, though of short-
lived consequences, took place in 1868 to free the island from domination
by Spain with which it shared a common cultural heritage. The issue
at stake was the same then as it has been under American occupation,
and as it is today: the fight of a closely knit and distinct community
against alien political domination. The arguments advanced in this struggle
may have changed since the days of Spanish rule; the basic political issues
have remained the same.
That the will to alleviate the tensions exists is a matter of record. The
United States Congress has demonstrated in recent years a willingness
to make political concessions whenever it could do so without inflicting
substantial damage upon either the United States or Puerto Rico. Puerto
Rico, like most other dependent areas in the world today, is a political
and economic liability rather than an asset to the dominant country.
Moreover, in recent years the possession of dependent territories has
proved increasingly embarrassing to the United States in the forum of
world opinion. The question, then, is of considerable interest as to whether
or not the authority recently granted Puerto Rico to formulate its own
constitution provides a formula for a general solution of the colonial
problem. The Puerto Rican government party has made rather ambitious
claims to prove that this is the case; the agencies of the United States
government have been considerably more modest. The question is a
complex one and bears careful examination. It will be investigated from
several perspectives: (1) the constitution bill in its historical setting; (2)
the intentions of the proponents and makers of the constitution bill; (3)
the constitutional status of Puerto Rico under the new arrangement; (4)
the treatment of the status issue in the constitution-making process; (5)
the treatment of the constitution in Congress; (6) Puerto Rican attitudes
toward the &dquo;new status&dquo;; and (7) the expectations of Puerto Ricans as
to their future relations with the United States.
*Research on this study has been supported in part by the Research Council of the Graduate School
of Louisiana State University.

The constitution bill (also referred to as Public Law 600) represents
the most recent achievement in the politico-legal relations between Puerto
Rico and the mainland. The partly turbulent history of these relations
began with the cession of Puerto Rico to the United States by Spain in
1898. The Puerto Ricans welcomed the American troops as liberators from
Spanish misrule in the expectation that the universal democratic principles
advanced by the United States would apply to them as a matter of course.
Concretely, this could have meant immediate or eventual independence or
admission as a state of the Union. Neither of these aspirations has
materialized. After two years of military occupation a civil government was
organized in 1900 under the so-called Foraker Act. As compared with the
Autonomous Charter, conceded to Puerto Rico by Spain in 1897 and grant-
ing the island f ar-reaching autonomy with representation in the Spanish
Cortes,2 the new civil government constituted a retrogressive step. It
reduced Puerto Rico to the anomalous position of an &dquo;unincorporated&dquo;
territorial possession of the United States3 and left little scope for self-
government. But even then there was no deep-seated hostility toward
the new rulers. Fully believing in the sincerity of American democratic
principles, many Puerto Ricans took it for granted that, if independence
were unattainable, Puerto Rico, like other territories before it, would
eventually be admitted to statehood. That status was considered by most
Puerto Ricans as fully compatible with their collective dignity. As time
went on, however, the attitude of superiority manifested by American
authorities and individuals precipitated a growth of national consciousness
and resentment.
Discontent on the part of the Puerto Ricans, and many Americans,
with the lack of self-government under the Foraker Act led to the enact-
ment of the more liberal Second Organic Act, the so-called Jones Act, in
1917. This, with some amendments, furnished the constitutional basis
for Puerto Rico until the recent inauguration of its constitution. While
it left Puerto Rico’s status as an organized, unincorporated territory of the
United States unchanged, it provided for a larger measure of self-govern-
ment, including an elective insular legislature. However, Congress’ virtually
unrestricted legislative powers over territories under the United States
Constitution were preserved. All federal laws, &dquo;not locally inapplicable,&dquo;
applied in Puerto Rico. Moreover, United States citizenship was granted
to Puerto Ricans although Congress then seemed no more ready than it is
Pub. L. No. 600, 81st Cong., 2d Sess., c 446 (July 3, 1950).
2 The Charter was in force for too brief a period to reveal its practical significance.
Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901); Koppel v. Bingham, 211 U.S. 468 (1909); Balzac v. People of
Puerto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922). Cf. Marcos A. Ramírez, "Los Casos Insulares," Revista Jurídica
de la Universidad de Puerto Rico (Rio Piedras, 1946), Vol. XVI, No. 2, pp. 121-49.

today to earmark the island for admission to statehood. Puerto Ricans,
while in the island, are not entitled to vote in presidential and congressional
elections. They are &dquo;represented&dquo; in Congress by a popularly-elected resi-
dent commissioner who has a voice, but no vote, in the House of Rep-
resentatives in matters affecting Puerto Rico.
Fuel was added to existing resentment by the determination of the
American authorities to bestow the blessings of democracy upon Puerto
Rico. Democratization is double-edged. It was inevitable that improved
economic conditions coupled with unprecedented educational opportuni-
ties, as well as the spread of democratic doctrines, should lead to a grow-
ing self-confidence of the educated classes with increasing demands for
dignidad and equality. A further concomitant of their enlightenment was
the widespread belief that Puerto Rico was being exploited and operated
in the interest of mainland sugar companies, American financial generosity
notwithstanding. The fact that the island has been an economic liability
to the United States from the very beginning was generally ignored.
How then did Puerto Ricans visualize the solution of their status
problem? The political parties, traditionally adopting the status problem as
their central issue, have vacillated between independence, statehood,
and local autonomy. At times all three statuses were simultaneously part
of the platform of the same party.4 The solution of the problem has been
prevented by economic rather than political factors. The density of its
rapidly increasing population in an area almost completely devoid of
natural resources has doomed the island to perpetual economic dependence
on a major power.5 While statehood, which would impose increasing
financial burdens, might conceivably be within the realm of economic
possibility, the major obstacle has been the reticence of Congress. Political
independence, which would put Puerto Rico outside United States, tariff
walls, would mean economic run.
Independence bills, introduced in
Congress at periodic intervals, were strongly resented by Puerto Ricans,
primarily because of their economic ramifications, but also because of the
apparently strong attachment of the people to their political link with the
United States. A
novelty was introduced into Puerto Rican politics by Luis
Munoz Marin, present governor and leader of the majority party, who
advocated postponement of the status question until the major social-
economic problems had been solved. The new platform had potential
appeal to proponents of both statehood and independence.
4 Platform of the Unionist Party founded in 1904, as quoted by José A. Gautier, "The Ideology of
Independence in the Evolution of the Political Parties in Puerto Rico under the United States
Régime, 1899 to 1940" (Master’s thesis, New York University, 1950), p. 52.
For detailed discussions of Puerto Rico’s economic problems see U. S. Tariff Commission, The Economy
of Puerto Rico with Special Reference to the Economic Implications of Independence and Other
Proposals to Change its Political Status (Washington, D.C., 1946); and Harvey S. Perloff, Puerto
Rico’s Economic Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950).
A persuasive case for statehood was made on economic grounds by Luis A. Ferré in a speech delivered
in the Ateneo de Puerto Rico on May 12, 1951.

During the period from 1917 to 1946 little progress was made in the
direction of a greater measure of local autonomy. In 1946 the President
of the United States appointed the first native Puerto Rican governor.
A really incisive change was introduced in 1947 through the &dquo;Elective...

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