15 November, 2012

What is Puerto Rico? Is it part of the United States?

Last week, on the same day as the U.S. presidential election, the territory of Puerto Rico voted in support of becoming the 51st state of the union. But what exactly is Puerto Rico now? Is Puerto Rico part of the United States, and can its people vote in U.S. elections? Find all your answers here!

If Puerto Rico's not a state, then what is it?
map of Puerto Rico's location relative to the U.S.
Location of Puerto Rico relative to the U.S.
Map by TUBS/Wikimedia Commons (source; CC BY-SA)
Puerto Rico is Spanish-speaking region made up of one big island and a few smaller islands in the Caribbean Sea. Since being taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, it's been an overseas territory of the United States (known in U.S. technical jargon as an "insular area"). Internationally, the island is sometimes treated informally as a separate nation, even sending its own team of athletes to the Olympics (See also: Which Countries Are and Aren't in the Olympics?). However, it's not an independent country, but a subject of the U.S. federal government.


So is Puerto Rico part of the U.S.?
Technically, Puerto Rico isn't considered to be a part of the U.S. (though certain laws treat it as if it were). Instead, it belongs to the U.S. as an "unincorporated" territory. Unincorporated territories of the U.S. are places where the country's constitution does not apply by default, except for in the case of certain "fundamental rights" owed to all Americans. It is also possible for a territory to be "incorporated" as part of the country, but this status rarely applies today.

Are Puerto Ricans Americans?
Yes - anyone born in Puerto Rico is automatically a U.S. citizen. They're also citizens of Puerto Rico - but since this second citizenship "is not the national citizenship of an independent country or state," they have to use U.S. passports to travel internationally. People born in Puerto Rico are considered "natural-born" American citizens, which qualifies them to run for president - but only after living in the U.S. proper for at least 14 years. They're also eligible to serve in the U.S. military, and quite a few of them have risen to high ranks within it.

Flag of Puerto Rico Territory Name:  
• Puerto Rico (English, Spanish)
Official Name:  
• Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (English)
• Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (Spanish)
Capital: San Juan
Can Puerto Ricans vote in U.S. elections?
It's complicated. Since Puerto Rico has no senators or representatives in the U.S. congress, residents of Puerto Rico aren't able to vote for legislators. Similarly, since the president of the United States isn't elected through a popular vote, but by electors from the states and the District of Columbia (D.C.), Puerto Rico residents are not able to vote for president in November.

But that's not the end of the story: since all American citizens have the right to live anywhere they want in the U.S., a Puerto Rican who moves to one of the states can vote there. And many do - some even serve in congress as representatives of their new states. It goes both ways...if an American from one of the states lives in Puerto Rico, they can't vote for congress or president unless they're still a legal resident of one of the states or D.C. (or if they're in the military). Former residents of the states who live overseas would qualify for federal absentee voting, but in the voting laws Puerto Rico doesn't qualify as "overseas".

All that said, residents of Puerto Rico actually do have a bit of influence over the choice of U.S. president - the presidential primaries don't require membership in the electoral college, so the Puerto Rican government is allowed to hold its own primary elections for the two major U.S. political parties. In March 2012, Puerto Rico chose Mitt Romney over Rick Santorum and several other Republican candidates.

Does Puerto Rico pay U.S. taxes?
Yes, residents of Puerto Rico are required to pay most U.S. federal taxes, and the territory contributes billions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury every year. However, most Puerto Rico residents who make all their money within the territory are exempt from one particular tax, the federal income tax, unless they work for the federal government. All Puerto Ricans still have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on their income, though they actually get significantly fewer benefits than residents of the 50 states do. Puerto Rico's territorial government also levies its own taxes on residents of the island.

What kind of government does Puerto Rico have?
Map of the municipalities of Puerto Rico
Municipalities of Puerto Rico (click to enlarge).
Map by NordNordwest & Kmusser (source). License: CC BY-SA
Officially, Puerto Rico is a constitutional republic like each of the 50 states - however, as an "organized territory", this government's authority doesn't come from the U.S. constitution. The U.S. Congress had to pass legislation specifically allowing Puerto Rico to write its own constitution (and to make Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens), and theoretically might be able to take that privilege away again if it wanted. Because of this, there is still disagreement from the U.N. on whether Puerto Rico should be classified as a self-governing dependent territory or just an old-fashioned colony.

Even though Puerto Rico is technically not a part of the U.S., it's still treated for many purposes as if it were. Federal government offices have a major presence on the island, and its financial, postal, and telephone systems are integrated with the U.S. Although the territory has no voting representation in congress, it does have a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, known as the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico.

Like the 50 states, Puerto Rico has its own elections, with a democratically chosen governor, senate, and house of representatives. Any American citizen may vote in Puerto Rico, as long as they have lived there for at least 30 days. Federal law also requires that former Puerto Rico residents living in other countries be allowed to vote by mail in Puerto Rican elections. Besides electing local officials, Puerto Rico also sometimes votes on status referendums, such as the one last week....

Part Two: Will Puerto Rico become the 51st State?