Is Puerto Rico a Country?

I was doing some research for an upcoming project and I came across this little nugget of utter nuttiness from the University of Texas at Austin. What makes this most egregious is the tag line on the website: “Trusted Internet portal for Latin American Studies content since 1992”. According to the About Page of the LANIC website, it is part of the University of Texas Libraries. Knowing this, one would assume that the site presents information for study purposes. It is likely university students who use this site as part of their research.

Imagine my surprise when I came across something that contradicted a fact I have known since grade school. No, not that Pluto, is or is not a planet.

That Puerto Rico is a country!

It is no wonder that anti-immigrants have no idea that those born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. It also explains why the American school system is such a failure. If a university – like the University of Texas at Austin – can’t provide basic facts what can we expect from rural and underpaid teachers working with meager supplies?

Some readers may be tempted to argue that the website is abandoned and is no longer maintained. Sadly, this is partly correct. According to a disclaimer on the Puerto Rico part of the page, the site has not been updated “as of July 2015.” It, sarcastically in my opinion, offers that if it were to be updated, the notice would be updated.

That, however, does not address the status of Puerto Rico as its history and current status was last updated in 1952 by the United States government and by the United Nations in 1978.

The UT website epitomizes the state of the American educational system – especially in Texas.

Let us answer the question: is Puerto Rico a country?

The answer is no.

Some Puerto Ricans consider Puerto Rico a country mostly for cultural reasons, but the idea that Puerto Rico is a country has no foundation. To answer the question of whether Puerto Rico is a country we first need to define what makes a country.

The first thing we need to consider is sovereignty. Does Puerto Rico have a government with the capacity to make treaties with other countries? The answer is no. We also need to ask, does Puerto Rico have the authority to print money? Puerto Rico uses the U.S. Dollar as its money. We should also ask, does Puerto Rico have the authority to wage war on behalf of the Puerto Rican people? The answer, again, is no.

Cultural identity is often argued as defining a country. However, and especially for Puerto Rico, if the Hispanic/Latino culture and/or the Spanish language can be used as a litmus test to define a country, then most of the American southwest could proclaim itself a nation, based on its Latino culture.

Unfortunately for that argument, the United States Civil War settled that debate when it settled that states could not leave the union whenever they like.

Others may argue that Puerto Rico meets certain elements of what makes a country. For example, Puerto Rico has an organized economy and an established government offering services to the population that lives there.

However, the United States Dollar is the currency used for commerce. U.S. laws govern air and marine traffic to and from the island. The U.S. military has the sole authority to defend Puerto Rico from foreign aggression.

The most important distinction, which is often misunderstood by many with an American education, is that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth (jus soli). Jus soli is not conferred on Puerto Ricans by the U.S. Constitution (The 14th Amendment) but by Congressional legislation.

Finally, and the most important fact is that no country in the world classifies Puerto Rico as an independent nation. The world recognizes Puerto Rico as part of the United States of America.

The history of Puerto Rico is what makes the issue more confusing. Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth, they cannot vote for the president when they are living on the island. But, when they are living in a state, such as Florida, they can cast a vote for president.

Puerto Rico was annexed by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898. The peace treaty, the Treaty of Paris did not address the citizenship of those living in Puerto Rico after the war. President McKinley opposed granting citizenship to the non-Anglo residents of Puerto Rico because he considered them “less civilized,” according to the official correspondence of the time.

The United States annexed Puerto Rico as a foreign territorial possession and its inhabitants as “nationals” instead of citizens, leaving their citizenship status ambiguous. The designation allowed the U.S. to impose laws on the inhabitants without conveying upon them full U.S. citizenship rights. The island inhabitants were no longer Spanish citizens and the “national” designation allowed them a form of nationality while severely limiting them.

Initially, Puerto Ricans were generally stuck on the island because they could not acquire either a Spanish or a U.S. passport for travel. To acquire a U.S. passport, Puerto Ricans had to individually apply to be naturalized to acquire citizenship to qualify for a U.S. passport. Puerto Rico did not and does not have the authority to issue a passport.

The Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 had a provision collectively granting U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans, although the islanders could individually decide to stay as “nationals,” if they wanted to. However, the Jones-Shafroth Act did not go far enough in addressing the question of citizenship. The act enacted the three branches of the Puerto Rican government but gave the governor and the president of the United States the power to veto any law passed by the Puerto Rican legislature. In 1934, Congress enacted legislation that provided jus soli, or birthright citizenship to all those born in Puerto Rico. The 1940 Nationality Act (INA) affirmed jus soli for Puerto Ricans.

What makes things even more confusing is that Puerto Rico can participate in the Olympics under its own flag insinuating that Puerto Rico is a country. The reasons for why the Olympic Committee allows Puerto Rico to compete independently from the United States is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is important to note that several other quasi-countries like Hong Kong, Palestine and even a group of refugees can compete independently at the Olympics.

In 1952, the islanders voted to ratify the “Estado Libre Asociado” (Free Associated State) referendum. It passed with over 80% of the vote. The referendum established Puerto Rico as a commonwealth. The commonwealth label of Puerto Rico should not be confused with the Commonwealth of Nations which is a collection of countries who subject themselves to the authority of the Queen of England but remain independent. In the case of Puerto Rico, the “commonwealth” label is just a label. The referendum did not convey any new rights upon the islanders.

The commonwealth designation of Puerto Rico officially removed the label of “colony” from Puerto Rico. The legislation was supposed to be a transitory period where the islanders could finally choose whether to be an independent nation or become a state of the United States of America. Under the new designation, Puerto Rico officially became an “unincorporated territory” that “belonged” to the U.S. but is “not part” of the country.

Clearly ambiguous and intended to be so for various reasons.

Most importantly, the commonwealth status does not convey sovereignty to the island. Puerto Ricans are subject to the U.S draft in times of war. The president of the United States can unilaterally veto any Puerto Rican legislation.

The question now becomes, how does the United Nations classify Puerto Rico.

The United Nations has changed its classification of Puerto Rico over time.

The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization (C-24) was established in 1961 to address the issue of millions of people living in territories in which they have no self-governance status. The UN list is a compilation of non-self-governing territories. Of the 17 territories in the latest UN list, three are linked to the U.S. They are American Samoa, Guam and the United States Virgin Islands.

Puerto Rico was dropped from the UN C-24 list shortly after the enactment of the commonwealth label in 1952. In 2016, the UN called on the United States to expedite the process to allow the Puerto Ricans their right to self-determination under C-24.

Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, generally consider themselves a country with their own distinct national identity. This sentiment is often expressed among themselves. However, in referendums about independence, Puerto Ricans vote to keep the status quo, i.e. their ambiguous status. In 2012, less than 6% of Puerto Ricans voted for independence. Over 60% voted for statehood.

This is clearly a contradiction of a Puerto Rican nation.

On one hand Puerto Ricans favor statehood while arguing they are a nation.

Since 1978, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization declared that a “colonial relationship” exists between Puerto Rico and the United States, although officially it is not on the C-24 list.

The question remains, is Puerto Rico a country.

The answer remains – no – under the definition of a sovereign state.

Puerto Rico is subservient to the United States in that the president of the United States has veto power over any legislation from Puerto Rico, unlike the states where no such provision exists. State laws can be overwritten by the U.S. Supreme Court, not the president.

Puerto Rico does not have the authority to make international agreements with other nations. Puerto Ricans are subject to the U.S. military draft and pay federal taxes. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens under jus soli (birthright citizenship) and Puerto Rico cannot issue Puerto Rican passports to its inhabitants.

Finally, and most important, Puerto Rico is not officially recognized by any other country as a sovereign nation, an important distinction required to be a country under most definitions. Wanting to be considered a nation because of culture or language does not official convey sovereignty on any group of people.

Therefore, Puerto Rico is not a country and it is a shame that the University of Texas at Austin ignores this fundamental fact.

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