The Puerto Rican Dilemma: Independence, Statehood, or the Status Quo?

For over 100 years, Puerto Rico has been part of the greater U.S. commonwealth. In recent decades, however, political sentiments are picking up steam.

Should Puerto Rico become the 51st state, strive for its independence, or simply stay as it is? So far, 5 referenda have been held to decide this issue; however voter turnout is low, and these referenda do no promise change.

Disclaimer: I’m not a scholar of Puerto Rico by any means. These are just observations, and I don’t have any particular position on this issue, but I found it interesting and wanted to bring attention to this complex but overlooked situation.

I struck up conversations with taxi drivers and youth at bars while I was there, which helped me gain insight into Puerto Rico’s struggle for autonomy and/or representation and recognition in the U.S. system.

Brief History and Background

The Caribbean island nation has been a territory of the United States since it was ceded by the Spanish to the U.S. as a spoil of the Spanish-American war in 1898.

Puerto Rico was considered a strategic outpost for U.S. interests in the Caribbean, as it guards the entry into the Panama canal. There is a naval base on Vieques island. Despite the U.S. no longer owning the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico remains in U.S. control and the naval base remains active.

Puerto Ricans hold U.S. citizenship and passports/IDs as well as Puerto Rican identification.

Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico pay taxes to Puerto Rico only, but cannot vote in the U.S. elections other than presidential primaries. Puerto Rico does not have any senators, but has a single representative in the H.o.R., a ‘resident commissioner’ who generally has limited voting abilities.

Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. states can vote and pay taxes to the state. Puerto Ricans (living anywhere) can run for president.

Recent News and Controversy

In the last referendum, 97% of voters voted for statehood. However, only 23% of Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico actually voted. This means that, despite the clear majority of the votes cast, only 22.3% of the Puerto Rican public can be held accountable as actually supporting independence.

So is the perceived majority of statehood-voters actually a minority position on this issue?

Most likely.

Many P.R. residents intentionally abstain in opposition, some hold the belief that the elections are rigged. According to the New York Times coverage, voter participation for other issues is generally high, around 80%, and voting is accessible in all provinces.

Clearly, the public is more divided than the referenda and media led us to believe.

So what would statehood or independence mean for Puerto Rico? If you can think of any more Pros or Cons, feel free to comment.

These are pros and cons for Puerto Rico, not for the U.S.– the U.S. obviously has its own list of potential pros and cons for each outcome.

(All of these speculations are either concern from Puerto Ricans or my personal ponderings.)


Pros: Electoral college votes, Equal representation in the Senate and House of Representatives, increased access to U.S. job market and trade, seamless freedom of movement/immigration, potentially a better healthcare system. Potentially higher quality of life.

Cons: Puerto Ricans would have to pay federal taxes. More general U.S. involvement in Puerto Rico, and potentially more non-Puerto Rican Americans living and working in Puerto Rico. Potentially actually less autonomy and freedom of trade partners.

Fears: more U.S. involvement in daily life, loss of Puerto Rican culture


Pros: Full control over their country and its future (for better or for worse)! Control over trade, budgets, public healthcare, and all other currently U.S. regulated sectors.

Cons: Less U.S. Aid. No longer necessarily part of U.S. trade agreements expected higher prices for imports. Potentially a more limited access to the U.S. job market. No longer necessarily protected by U.S. Military. No longer able to vote in U.S. elections, or run for political office.

Fears: The tourist economy could potentially tank if U.S. citizens suddenly needed passports to visit Puerto Rico. U.S. immigration policies could change. Fear of losing U.S. citizenship (unlikely). Lower quality of life.

Status Quo

Pros: Easy immigration to the U.S. and access to the U.S. job market. Income made exclusively in Puerto Rico is exempt from U.S federal taxes. Relative autonomy without great responsibility.

Cons: In some ways dependent on U.S. aid, tourists, and other resources, which are not always properly allocated.

The American, Spanish Colonial, and Puerto Rican flag fly over Castillo San Cristobal as well as many other P.R. government buildings.

Will Puerto Rico always be stuck in ‘limbo’, or is territory-status the best scenario for Puerto Rico?

It seems that most people, albeit silently, prefer the status quo and it’s not hard to see why; Puerto Ricans get some tax breaks, enjoy relative autonomy, and don’t have to worry about invasion, disease, etc., with the U.S. on their side.

However, voting may become more of an issue seeing as Trump is running in 2020. The president notoriously did little to help Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, which killed over 3,000 people and left tens of thousands without running water or electricity for months.

So stay tuned, maybe we’ll have a 51st state sometime in our future.. but probably not any time soon.

For more, follow me on Instagram @tristans_expeditions


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