Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Vamos Federales!
Why the Federal Government Fears Puerto Rico

By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, December 15, 1998 --  

When the Puerto Rican electorate defeated a pro-statehood referendum in voting Sunday, the American press and Puerto Rican opposition parties defined it as a rejection of Governor Pedro Rosello's vision to see the territory become fully American. But the reality has far more to do with defects in the U.S. Federal Government than with Puerto Ricans' desire to be independent.

This reality is clearly evident in the mind of statehood's opponents.

"We are not Americans," said Anibal Acevedo Vila, leader of the anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party, "We are U.S. citizens and we're proud of that. But we are Puerto Ricans?"1

In essence, Vila and most Puerto Ricans are saying that they embrace the freedoms and rights awarded to U.S. citizens, but have no desire to be full members of its federal government as it stands. This infuriates many members of Congress, especially those in the U.S. House of Representatives who drafted legislation requiring the referendum to settle the 100-year-old Puerto Rican independence issue. The purpose of the House legislation, to many conservative reformers, was to force Puerto Rico to either pay its own way or to give up federal assistance.

In its current status of commonwealth, Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and enjoys many of the benefits of federal programs and entitlements. But Puerto Ricans pay no federal taxes. This has effectively given residents of the territory a free ride since 1952, when the current arrangement was enacted. Still, Puerto Ricans face two major disadvantages. First, they do not receive representation in Congress, nor are they able to vote for President. Second, people born in Puerto Rico have only statutory citizenship. This differs with that of most Americans, in that it may be revoked at any time by an act of Congress.

While disenfranchisement is hardly desirable, many mainland Americans would gladly give up their right to vote in return for exemption from all federal taxes. It can hardly be surprising, therefore, that Puerto Ricans have elected to do the same. The true test of Puerto Rican aspirations will be when Congress places a time limit on the territory's tax-free status. Given the current makeup of Congress, and the result of the referendum, this inevitable change will be coming sooner rather than later.

When the new showdown comes, Puerto Ricans will be forced to choose between one of several options, many of which were already on the ballot Sunday.

  1. Independence
  2. Statehood
  3. Free Association, which would maintain an economic and defense union, but mean an end to federal authority and benefits. Under this arrangement, those born in Puerto Rico in the future would not be U.S. citizens.2
  4. Enhanced Commonwealth, which essentially is the same as Free Association, but with future Puerto Ricans maintaining U.S. citizenship.3

The fourth option, "Enhanced Commonwealth", received a plurality of votes in a 1993 referendum in Puerto Rico, but was kept off the ballot this time by Governor Rosello's desire to bolster the prospects of statehood. It is easy to conclude that this weeks' 50.2 percent4 "none of the above" vote is largely made up of Enhanced Commonwealth supporters. The fact that this latter arrangement has not been implemented is in no small part due to its conflict with the U.S. Constitution. This would essentially require a new constitutional arrangement where other nations can enter into an economic union with the 50 states, and then receive automatic U.S. citizenship.

Congressmen have scoffed at this proposal as an unrealistic dream. This is unfortunate. The proposed Enhanced Commonwealth would create a system similar to both the European Union and the original U.S. Articles of Confederation. It would allow tight economic cooperation and a free-flow of people and goods without the imposing overhead of the federal bureaucracy. It is precisely the kind of arrangement that is needed if the U.S. Government is to survive in the new age of global democracy and international markets.

Aside from constitutional hurdles, the biggest strike against this proposal is probably its intense attractiveness. Enhanced Commonwealth would allow Puerto Rico to enjoy the major benefits provided by the federal government -- national defense and monetary policy -- without having to endure its many excesses. If Puerto Rico were to ever enjoy this system, it would be difficult to argue that the same arrangement should not be open to current U.S. states. The stampede of defections from the Union -- likely led by South Carolina -- would be a fatal blow to all those who feed off of federal power.


1. Washington Post, December 12, 1998, Puerto Ricans Again Go to Polls in Bid to End Identity Crisis
2. Libre Association
3. The Christian Science Monitor, December 11, 1998, Puerto Rico Chooses
4. New York Times, December 13, 1998, Puerto Ricans Reject Statehood