On December 15, 2022, the House of Representatives passed the Puerto Rico Status Act by a vote of 233 to 191. This bill, formally known as House Resolution 8393, sets plans for a November 5 plebiscite to determine the territory’s status. In the bill, the available options for voters include statehood, independence, or sovereignty in free association with the United States. This recent legislation is a culmination of a difficult historical process to achieve greater decision-making authority for Puerto Rico.
After the Spanish-American War, Congress took various steps to liberalize Puerto Rico and alleviate colonialist control. Notably, the Foraker Act transitioned away from the United States military administration and established a cross-communication network between a residential commissioner and Congress. This fostered increased collaboration between Puerto Rico and the American government, paving the way for additional legislation. Consequently, the Jones Act later guaranteed American citizenship for Puerto Ricans and empowered the creation of a bill of rights and governmental system in the territory.
Since then, Puerto Rico has held six non-binding plebiscites to determine its status. In 1967, the local Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly held a popular vote—with 60% of the population choosing the territorial status. However, the statehood and independence parties boycotted this election, skewing the results. Later, a status vote in 1993 concluded with a narrow victory for territorial proponents, with statehood a mere 2% behind.
As statehood rose in popularity in the wake of this vote, Representative Don Young (R) of Alaska introduced House Resolution 856 in 1998 to establish conditions for Puerto Rican statehood. The guidelines in HR 856 encouraged the creation of English language programs if Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. This bill also recommended that Puerto Rico develop a ten-year transition plan to foster self-government in the territory. Although HR 856 was passed in the House, the bill was not ultimately enacted into law. Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican government incorporated recommendations from this legislation for the 1998 plebiscite. A majority of voters chose “none of the above” from options of commonwealth, independence, and statehood—though the latter received a plurality of the remaining votes.
The House then introduced resolutions 900 and 2499 in 2007 and 2010, respectively, to conduct further Puerto Rican plebiscites. Yet, the Senate did not accept these bills over concerns that Congress must prioritize economic and humanitarian issues. Despite this, Puerto Rico later held another non-binding referendum in 2012, with 61% voting for statehood.
This result drove Puerto Rico’s Residential Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D) to introduce House Resolution 2000 a year later. Now, the territory governor, Pierluisi, found bipartisan support from 131 cosponsors for his bill, which called for immediate annexation of Puerto Rico. Ultimately, the legislation never received a vote on the House floor, in part due to the perceived illegitimacy of the 2012 plebiscite. With over 450,000 blank ballots in the most recent vote, Congress ignored the results and dismissed HR 2000.
To improve upon the 2012 plebiscite, Puerto Rico held another status vote in 2017. Although an overwhelming 97% of the territory’s residents voted for statehood, a boycott from the Popular Democratic Party casted doubts on the results. This referendum came after House Resolution 260, which was another failed attempt by Congress to facilitate a formal plebiscite in the territory.
Nonetheless, the movement for Puerto Rican statehood persisted. House Resolutions 1965, 4901, and 1522 all sought to admit Puerto Rico as a state, reinforced by 53% voting for statehood in a 2020 plebiscite. Though unsuccessful, these recent efforts were promising for proponents of Puerto Rican statehood.
Now, the passage of the Puerto Rico Status Act would cement these long-standing efforts to clarify Puerto Rico’s future status as part of the US. Although the bill’s future in the Democratic-controlled Senate remains uncertain, this is an important first step towards correcting political disparities between Puerto Ricans and mainland American citizens. For the first time, commonwealth status is not included as an option for the potential 2023 plebiscite. This provision, along with extensive funding promises, makes Representative Nydia Velázquez (D) of New York hopeful that HR 8393 gives Puerto Rico “the necessary tools to transition to a new postcolonial order.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the Senate as Republican-controlled when Democrats have the majority. We regret the error.