BUDPR Framework for Puerto Rico Status Legislation

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony for 125 years. Recent legislative efforts in Congress —including the 2022 Puerto Rico Status Act—have failed to gain traction or make progress toward ending that colonial status. This is because some efforts have ignored legal, political, economic, social, and cultural realities inherent to this contentious and divisive issue.

In order to promote a just, inclusive, and democratic decolonization process for Puerto Rico, Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora has drafted a framework for future U.S. legislation to end Puerto Rico’s status. The framework includes 10 critical elements based on three principles:

  • The colonial status quo is not an option and it must end. Inaction by Congress on statehood cannot continue to result in the perpetuation of colonialism and must lead to independence.
  • Puerto Rico status legislation is only useful if it is politically viable.Message bills” that are destined to be rejected by Congress do not represent real progress. Any process must take into account political realities in the United States.
  • Puerto Ricans must have a leading role in the process and our key concerns must be addressed. Vital questions related to citizenship, language, economic transition, etc. must be discussed and decided—together—by Puerto Rico and the United States.

These tenets, which will guarantee the effectiveness, fairness, and inclusion of any Puerto Rico status legislation, can be instrumentalized in the following ways:

1. Put an expiration date on the status quo. Congress should set a date (e.g., 2030) by which Puerto Rico will no longer be a U.S. possession irrespective of what process is used to determine its future status.

WHY? The United States must make and honor a political commitment to decolonization. A ticking clock will also add urgency and encourage compromise.

2. Exclude the current “Commonwealth” and any other territorial status option. Only non-colonial options should be considered: statehood, independence, or sovereignty with a compact of free association.

WHY? The problem cannot be the solution. No matter how much support it may still have in Puerto Rico, any status that would keep Puerto Rico under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution and the plenary powers of Congress must be off the table.

3. Force a choice between statehood and independence/free association. Draft legislation with the contingency that, if Congress does not grant statehood, it must initiate a transition to a sovereign status.

WHY? It’s not enough to exclude the colonial status as an option if it nonetheless endures any time Congress ignores a status bill. The failure to embrace one legitimate status option must lead to the alternative, not to the continuation of the status quo.

4. Specify an explicit supermajority threshold for statehood. Decide and be transparent about what level of support for statehood would constitute a mandate.

WHY? By ignoring plebiscite results in which statehood has obtained small, simple majorities, Congress has already implicitly created such a requirement. Any legislation should make it explicit in order to address the political reality that Congress will not add a state to the Union against the wishes of roughly half of its people.

5. Create a process and body for bilateral negotiation to define status options and transitions. This can take the form of a Puerto Rican status convention advised by a bipartisan U.S. commission (as suggested in the 2021 Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act) or of another joint deliberative body.

WHY? It is unacceptable for U.S. lawmakers to make decisions that will shape Puerto Rico’s political future behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. But it is useless for Puerto Ricans to deliberate and make decisions on issues that Congress will ignore or reject. Only together can Americans and Puerto Ricans arrive at decisions that reflect the will and desire of Puerto Ricans but will be politically acceptable to Americans.

6. Include detailed transition plans that include economic assistance. These plans would help Puerto Ricans absorb the impact of being subjected to federal taxes under statehood, or assist with a transition to independence after decades of colonialism.

WHY? Economic issues are among Puerto Ricans’ key concerns about each status option. Puerto Ricans need and deserve clarity on the economic impact and prospects for immediate stability under each alternative.

7. Address legal and sociocultural questions related to Puerto Rico’s identity and nationhood. Issues like citizenship and the official language of schools and government are all-important to Puerto Ricans and must be considered in any legislation.

WHY? Puerto Rico is a nation with a different language and culture than the United States. Puerto Ricans deserve to know the legal requirements and/or political expectations of U.S. leaders regarding cultural assimilation or the ability to preserve and protect our distinct identity.

8. Make the legislation and the process inclusive and fully bilingual. Legislative text, public hearings, negotiation proceedings, etc. must be available in English and Spanish. Hearings must take place in both the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, with broad participation from civil society in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora.

WHY? Only a minority of Puerto Ricans on the archipelago are fluent English speakers, and all must be able to understand the documents and events that will define our political future in their native language. The perspectives and concerns of Puerto Ricans everywhere are necessary to arrive at a just outcome, and their inclusion will ensure much-needed buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders across the ideological spectrum.

9. Assign enough time and resources for educational campaigns ahead of any vote. Establish a sufficient period for Puerto Ricans to learn enough about each status alternative and ensure equitable public financing for each option.

WHY? A political status change for Puerto Rico is a supremely complex and permanent decision that requires the well-informed consent of our people, especially regarding key details that may have been just decided by negotiators. Effort should be made to prevent unrestricted “dark money” from unduly influencing any educational campaigns.

10. Be honest and forthright with Puerto Ricans. No more talking points about “historic progress” against colonialism on bills that will surely fail. Tell the truth about the political barriers and possibilities of any legislation or status change effort in Congress.

WHY? Puerto Ricans are not full participants in a U.S. government in which they’re denied basic voting rights and representation, that conducts business in a different language, and that most often neglects our people. Puerto Ricans deserve, and the political status debate needs, a strong dose of honesty and transparency on the part of lawmakers who hold unlimited power over Puerto Rico.