When Did Puerto Rico Become a Commonwealth?

A historic street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A historic street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island nation that forms part of the West Indies. Its legal status is that it is an incorporated territory of the United States of America. English and Spanish are official languages of Puerto Rico. The currency is the US Dollar.

History of Puerto Rico

The Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, who was also the first person of Caucasian descent to set foot on the island, declared it to be called San Juan. However, later on, when gold was discovered on the island, it was renamed ‘Puerto Rico’, the Espanyol word for gold. Because the Spanish were in dominion of the island from Columbus setting foot on it, they colonized it until 1898, when, during the Spanish-American War, the United States landed on the island and, with the help of Puerto Ricans, gained control. However, while the Americans had gotten the islanders’ support by assuring them the were fighting for the freedom and territory, after the war they stayed put and installed a colonial system. They did so because they were attracted by the sugar resources in the island, and in this way, supplanted the parliamentary democratic system the Puerto Ricans had. Nevertheless, even in this state, Puerto Rico is still largely a self-governing state.

In the 19th century, which was its period of expansion, the United States had created several incorporated territories such as Colorado, with the view that, in time, the residents of these places would be able to gain full American citizenship. However, Congress blockaded the path to full citizenship for the Puerto Ricans, arguing that these natives who had previously been under Spanish-ruled territories would never be able to understand and fit into the Anglo-Saxon systems. Thus, the Puerto Ricans stayed in this limbo where they neither had their full independence nor were they citizens of the United States of America until 1917 when they gained their citizenship following the Jones-Shafroth Act, a move that some argue was only effected because the United States needed people to fight for them in the First World War.

Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

In 1952, Puerto Rico officially became a Commonwealth of the United States. This legislation was meant to declare that Puerto Rico, though still under overall control of the United States, had self-rule. However, even with move, Puerto Ricans, along with residents of areas such as the US. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, to this day are neither allowed to vote in the American presidential nor the American senatorial election. Futhermore, while Puerto Rico has a congressional representative, this representative is not allowed to vote, even on matters on the floor that affect Puerto Rico directly.

Possibility of Statehood

In January 2017, Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosello came into power on the back of a promise to fight for statehood. Later that year, a referendum was held on the island, with the result that Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly for their full citizenship. However, as less than 25% of eligible voters participated in the referendum, Congress has not moved forward with statehood.


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