Congressional inaction preserves U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico


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The 118th [US] Congress has opted for colonialism over democracy in Puerto Rico.

Congressional leaders have sidelined one of the more promising efforts to end U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.

Following months of progress on a landmark bill that would enable the people of Puerto Rico to vote on a post-territorial status for their nation, the newly seated Congress has dropped the issue. At a Senate committee hearing last month, U.S. senators paid little attention to repeated calls by Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi to move forward with the legislation and end Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States.

“For far too long, the U.S. Senate has looked the other way to avoid righting the colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s status,” Pierluisi said in a written statement to the committee.

For nearly 125 years, Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States. Under the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court cases from the early twentieth century, Puerto Rico and other U.S. island territories are classified as “unincorporated” territories of the United States. The Supreme Court’s framework enables the United States to rule the territories as colonies and deprive their residents of equal rights.

The people of Puerto Rico, who were granted U.S. citizenship by Congress in the early twentieth century, lack many of the same rights as U.S. citizens living in the states. Islanders do not have full voting representation in Congress. They cannot vote in presidential elections, despite the fact that the president can send them into war. They pay taxes that fund social programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, but they receive fewer benefits. Essentially, the people of Puerto Rico are treated as second-class citizens.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress is not required to include Puerto Rico in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which provides benefits to poor elderly Americans and poor Americans with disabilities. Although Congress has extended the program to some U.S. territories, it has excluded Puerto Rico and other territories. Consequently, Puerto Ricans can receive SSI benefits while they are living in the states but not while they are living in Puerto Rico.

“If you believe in equality, you cannot expect the American citizens in Puerto Rico to consent to discrimination and unequal treatment,” Pierluisi said.

Many Puerto Ricans view the island’s territorial status as a reason for their unequal treatment, but they disagree over what to do about it. Some islanders want Puerto Rico to declare its independence from the United States. Others hope that Puerto Rico will join the United States as the 51st state. Many desire some kind of middle ground that would preserve U.S. citizenship while establishing autonomy for a Puerto Rican nation.

The Puerto Rican government has held several non-binding plebiscites on the nation’s status, but each one has been mired in controversy, making the results open to interpretation. The last plebiscite, held in November 2020, resulted in 52 percent of voters opting for statehood, but only a slight majority of registered voters cast ballots.

Historically, Congress has shown little interest in decolonizing Puerto Rico. Some officials have strongly criticized U.S. colonial control of the island nation, but they have introduced opposing bills, with some geared toward independence and others focused on statehood.

Over the past year, a growing number of Democratic politicians have grown increasingly convinced of the need to change the colonial status quo. Starting from this common ground, they have created a compromise bill, the Puerto Rico Status Act, that would enable the people of Puerto Rico to choose among three options: independence, statehood, or a compact of free association with the United States.

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