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The Long Arm of Uncle Sam: The United States' Imperialist Influence on Puerto Rico

Understanding the legislative divide on Puerto Rico's statehood or independence from the United States


Puerto Rico's historical evolution, spanning from Spanish colonization to its current status as an overseas U.S. territory, involves a complex interplay of cultural diversity, political intricacies, and shifts in identity dynamics. The formation and existence of Puerto Rico is characterized by the nuanced interaction of historical events, legislative decisions, and socio-cultural transformations. This narrative offers a comprehensive exploration of Puerto Rican heritage, delving into the enduring legacies of Spanish rule and closely examining the complexities shaping Puerto Rico's diplomatic relationship with the United States. To gain a deeper understanding of the geopolitical dimensions of this case, it is crucial to analyze the historical layers, legal complexities, and ongoing debates that define Puerto Rico's distinctive position in the broader American narrative.

From Spanish Rule to a U.S. Territory

The colonial history of Puerto Rico can be traced back to its connection with Spain, which began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and Spanish conquistadors in the 15th century. For over 400 years, Puerto Rico remained under the political rule of the Spanish crown as a territory of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in the Americas. Over the centuries, the archipelago has been shaped by a blend of cultures, resource and economic exploitation, and a complex social structure. Initially defined by the native Taíno occupants, this structure evolved over time with the introduction of enslaved Africans and other foreign communities, contributing to the formation of the Puerto Rican identity and population that exists today.

As a crucial part of the Spanish Empire, the three inhabited islands of Puerto Rico, Vieques, and Culebra established strong connections with neighboring territories including the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Eventually, it also became linked to the United States as the country extended its imperialist influence across North and South America, encompassing various territories and nations in the Caribbean.

The island’s struggle for independence from Spain began in the late 19th century, culminating in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As a result, the Treaty of Paris ceded Puerto Rico to the United States, marking a significant shift in its colonial status. This change led to Puerto Rico becoming an unincorporated overseas U.S. territory, a status that remains in effect today. Despite the island’s historical ties to Latin America and connections with neighboring islands, Puerto Rico’s political status has created a unique identity within the Caribbean. The island’s bilingualism, with Spanish and English as official languages, reflects its dual cultural heritage and territorial ties with the United States, reinforcing its unique position in the broader historical narrative.

While Puerto Rico shares historical, linguistic, and cultural bonds with the broader Latin American sphere, its status as a U.S. territory introduces intricate dynamics in its relationship with the region. Recognized as part of the Latin American community due to its shared history, language, and culture, Puerto Rico's political nuances, stemming from its territorial status, create distinctions from fully independent Latin American nations. This multifaceted identity continues to influence Puerto Rico’s position within the regional framework.

Citizen Rights in Puerto Rico

In a national survey conducted in 2017, it was revealed that close to 50% of American adults were unaware that Puerto Ricans were considered fellow citizens of the United States. According to the U.S. Code 8 USC 1402, individuals born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899, are recognized as natural-born citizens of the United States.

Nonetheless, specific provisions within the legal framework regulate their citizenship status, introducing distinctions based on birthdate and residency. Discerning these complexities is crucial for deciphering the subtle aspects of Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. territory and its implications for the American identity of its residents.

While Puerto Ricans hold U.S. citizenship, the intricacies of their American identity often diverge from the conventional understanding of what defines an American. Despite being natural-born citizens and possessing U.S. passports and government-issued IDs, Puerto Ricans may encounter distinctive nuances in their civic rights. Their mobility throughout the 50 states mirrors that of any other American, classified as internal migration rather than immigration.

A notable exception to their full participation in the American democratic process is the exclusion from voting for the U.S. president or running for the presidential office. This disparity in political representation underscores a complex aspect of Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States.

It's crucial to recognize that Puerto Rico has its own form of government, echoing that of each individual U.S. state. A governor serves as the head of the territory, while the islands' government comprises three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. This structure emphasizes the autonomous governance Puerto Rico exercises within the broader U.S. framework, embodying a unique blend of American citizenship and distinctive territorial status. These dynamics are pivotal in unraveling the layers of modern imperialism that defines the Puerto Rico-U.S. relationship.

Additionally, residents of the 50 states enjoy the privilege of representation in the U.S. Congress, a distinction that shapes their political and civic participation. In contrast, overseas U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, lack federal voting representation and a voting Congress representative, making them largely unnoticed in both electoral and geographical terms. As of 2020, the U.S. governs various aspects of Puerto Rico, such as its economy, trade, public education systems, transportation laws, military, and tax codes.

Puerto Rican Diaspora Across the United States

The shift from being a Spanish territory to becoming part of the U.S. triggered a notable wave of migration from the island to the mainland. The history of this migration unfolds as a narrative driven by economic opportunity and a pursuit of a better life in states that offered benefits and protected rights not available to Puerto Ricans on the island. Citizens of Puerto Rico have sought new horizons, adding to the rich cultural diversity of the United States. Notably, New York City and the surrounding state emerged as a focal point, giving rise to the vibrant 'Nuyorican' community consisting of city-born and native-born Puerto Ricans who live in the greater metropolitan area. Beyond New York, Puerto Rican communities flourish across the East Coast in places like Florida, New Jersey and beyond, shaping the broader American experience.

Today, the population of Puerto Rico in the archipelago remains at an all-time low due to a continuous decrease, as thousands of citizens have migrated to the mainland U.S. from the island over the past several decades. Migration is influenced by several overlapping causations. One major push factor for migration has been caused by repeated natural and environmental disasters experienced across the islands of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria made landfall on the islands in September 2017, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans and causing significant infrastructure damage, leading to blackouts that lasted for almost half a year.

Conversely, Puerto Ricans on the mainland have seen a growth in population. A significant pull factor attracting migration to the mainland has been familial connections and the well-established Puerto Rican communities that span the entire continental United States. The strong ties within families, coupled with a sense of community and shared cultural identity, have played a crucial role in attracting Puerto Ricans to migrate and establish roots on the mainland. The well-established Puerto Rican communities, thriving in various regions, not only serve as destinations but also as nurturing environments where individuals can maintain their cultural heritage while adapting to the diverse landscape outside of the islands.

Statehood, Territory, or Independence?

The Puerto Rican diasporic and island populations find themselves deeply immersed in a significant dispute regarding the political future of the island, with three distinct options shaping the conversation. At the core of the debate is the choice between maintaining Puerto Rico's status as an unincorporated U.S. territory, pursuing statehood and becoming the 51st state, or striving for recognized independence from the U.S. federal government and United Nations. Each option comes with its own set of implications, sparking intense discussions and disagreements within the Puerto Rican community and among other American citizens and politicians.

One pivotal development in this ongoing dialogue is the introduction of the PR Statehood Admissions Act 2021 (U.S. Bill H.R. 2070 Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021). Presented to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources on June 16, 2021, this legislative proposal has stirred both support and opposition. Advocates argue that statehood would grant Puerto Rico full representation in Congress and increased federal resources, while opponents express concerns about potential cultural and economic consequences tied to closer integration with the United States.

The historical context of Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States adds layers of complexity to this dispute. The island's removal from the United Nations' list of non-self-governing territories in 1953 set the stage for a unique situation. Since then, the United States has maintained that Puerto Rico lacks sovereign powers of its own, with internal autonomy subject to potential revocation by the U.S. Congress. During a legislative meeting in 2021 discussing the aforementioned Act, Annette Martínez-Orabana, a lawyer and Director of the Caribbean Institute of Human Rights in San Juan, Puerto Rico, emphasized that a legitimate exercise of self-determination hinges on explicit recognition by the U.S. government. This recognition allows the people of Puerto Rico to determine their political, economic, social, and cultural future without external interference.

Further, Martínez-Orabana stresses that this concerns international relations, not minority rights. It recognizes a distinct people with a unique identity and territory under colonial rule for over 123 years. The Bill (H.R. 2070) emphasizes the importance of international law in this context, signaling that administrative states cannot freely determine when and how self-determination is exercised.

In addressing these complex issues, Puerto Ricans grapple not only with the practical implications of political status but also with questions of identity, autonomy, and their place within the broader framework of U.S. governance. The ongoing debate underscores the need for a comprehensive and inclusive discussion that takes into account the diverse perspectives and aspirations within the Puerto Rican community.

The Future of Puerto Rico

As Puerto Rico confronts pivotal decisions regarding its political future, the reverberations of its colonial history shape the ongoing discourse about its status. The options of statehood, maintaining territorial status, or pursuing independence introduce intricate considerations related to identity, autonomy, and political representation. The Puerto Rican community, spanning both the island and its diaspora, grapples with these choices, seeking a trajectory aligned with their collective aspirations. The recent introduction of the PR Statehood Admissions Act in 2021 marks a significant development, instigating discussions around representation, cultural preservation, and economic stability. Recognizing the nuanced nature of Puerto Rico's identity and its complex relationship with the United States is essential, fostering an informed dialogue that respects the diverse perspectives within this vibrant and varied community.


  1. Cheatham, Amelia ; Roy, Diana. Council on Foreign Relations. "Puerto Rico: A U.S. Territory in Crisis, An Update." Council on Foreign Relations, September 4, 2020.

  2. Hinojosa, Jennifer. “Two Sides of the Coin of Puerto Rican Migration: Depopulation in Puerto Rico and the Redefinition of the Diaspora.” Centro Journal 30, no. 3 (2018).

  3. Madera, Judith. "Quiet Empire and Slippery Geography: Puerto Rico as Nonsovereign Territory." The Journal of Transnational American Studies 11, no. 1 (2020).

  4. Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act and Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021: Legislative Hearings on H.R. 1522 and H.R. 2070, Day 1, Before the Select Comm. on Natural Resources, 117 Cong. (2021) 

  5. Schimmer, Russell. “Puerto Rico.” Yale University, Genocide Studies Program, January 1, 1970.,Taíno%20culture%20dominated%20the%20island

  6. U.S. Representatives. House. Persons born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899. 8 USC 1402, June 27, 1952, ch. 477, title III, ch. 1, §302, 66 Stat. 236. section1402&num=0&edition=prelim#:~:text=All%20persons%20born%20in%20Puerto%20Rico%20on%20or%20after%20January,the%20United%20States%20at%20birth.

  7. U.S. Representatives. House. Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021. H.R.2070 - 117th Congress. Introduced in House (03/18/2021),%2C%20statehood)%20of%20the%20territory.


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