Puerto Rico: A study of the world’s largest stateless nation

by Fabiola M. Portal Dorado


Aerial view of El Morro, the Spanish fortress, in Old San Juan



With this research guide I hope to generate a better understanding of the Puerto Rican people and their conflicted national identity. I discuss the struggles that stem from pertaining to an unclear political status of neither belonging to a state nor being a sovereign country.  The ambiguous status the island has as an Estado Libre Asociado, called Commonwealth in English but directly translating to ‘State Free Associated’, of the United States.

There are 17 non-self governing territories remaining in the world today, Puerto Rico does not qualify as one of these as it is governed in many ways by the island’s internal government, while still requiring its inhabitants to pay federal taxes and uphold the U.S. Constitution and laws despite lack of representation in the Senate, extremely limited representation in Congress, and lack of voting rights. The Puerto Rican nationals are U.S. Citizens and enjoy many rights that come with citizenship, with certain restrictions delineated by the federal government. The many contradictions of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico are not only political, but also linguistic, cultural, ideological, religious and social among others. This situation causes a severe identity crisis in Puerto Rico, where the people feel a strong sense of national pride while lacking control over their nation. Puerto Rico has not been independent since the imposition of Spanish rule in 1498, this long history of dependence on foreign command has led a large part of the Puerto Rican community to believe that the island is incapable of prospering independently. This belief has guaranteed the survival of the complicated and discriminatory relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.

Since 2008, Puerto Rico has suffered from a growing financial crisis and increasing unemployment rates, which climaxed in 2015 with the Puerto Rican debt crisis tarnishing the economy.  This problem was primarily caused by the constraining laws and crippling policies imposed on Puerto Rico by the United States. The current political status of the island provides the foreign dominating power with the ability to treat Puerto Rican people like equals when it is convenient, and neglect them when not.  Puerto Rico is consequentially suffering from what is being referred to as the brain drain, in which the young educated elite are abandoning the island to move to mainland United States in search of stability and professional opportunities. The increasing violence, the enveloping economic struggle, the imposition of exorbitant taxes on the middle class, the increasing cost of life, and the renewed sense of nationalism are once again uniting the Puerto Rican people in a call for change and clarification of the island’s political status.  The Puerto Rican issue has continuously been raised by national leaders and critics around the world, and appeals to the United Nations and international actors this year has finally raised enough concern that an actual change is sure to happen.  People are now demanding statehood or independence, but refusing to continue in this backwards in-between position.


The Puerto Rican Political Status: What is ELA?


All major problems of the island-nation stem from the unique and unstable political status the island has and its undefined relationship with the United States. The 1952 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico created this new governmental system that is now being highly questioned.


Puerto Rican Governor and creator of the Free Associated State, Luis Muñoz Marín

Luis Muñoz Marín was extremely popular in the United States as well as in Puerto Rico, he referred to himself as a proud American citizen.


Documents on the Constitutional History of Puerto Rico. Washington, D.C.: Issued by the Office of Puerto Rico, 1948.

This is the official document issued by the Office of Puerto Rico to describe the evolution of Constitutional rights Puerto Ricans have obtained life under Spanish and American rule for a better understanding of the problems involved. It refers to Puerto Rico’s previous status as a Spanish province, living under the Constitution of 1876, when it became a United States possession in 1878. Under Spain Puerto Rico was controlled by special laws. Following the 1878 Treaty of Paris Puerto Rico was ceded to the hands of the US who imposed military rule until the establishment of civil government through the Foraker Act, and in 1917 were granted US Citizenship. The final chapter presents a few contradictory cases on the political status of the United States territories and their implications.

“In presidential messages it has been repeatedly recommended to Congress that the political status of Puerto Rico be crystalized in a manner which would allow the Puerto Ricans themselves to study and consider the proposed solutions, and figure in the final determination of their future relationship to the mainland.”


Additional Documents

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. February 2, 1952. http://welcome.topuertorico.org/constitu.shtml


Badillo, Vanessa.  The Economic Implications of Puerto Rican Statehood.  Thesis for Harvard College Department of Economics. 2005. http://thesis.haverford.edu/dspace/handle/10066/597.

“In reality Puerto Rico’s status is neither that of an associated free state nor that of a state of the Union, but rather that of a territory”.  Badillo views U.S. – Puerto Rico relations as undeniably colonial, and refers to the denouncement by other Caribbean and Latin American countries of the American oppressive treatment and the denial of the inalienable right to self-determination.


Consequences and reactions of the Free Associated State

El Estado Libre Asociado or FreeState-ism is the “psychological synthesis of the weak, the timid and the docile”    – René Marqués

“The colonial inheritance weighs on our people with the heaviness of death.”   – Mariano Abril


Pedreira, Antonio S. Insularismo: Ensayos de interpretación puertorriqueña, Segunda edición. San Juan, PR: Imprenta Venezuela E, Franklin & Co., 1942.

Insularismo is a compilation of essays collected by renowned historian Antonio S. Pedreira, with the goal of answering to the question of who Puerto Ricans are and what are Puerto Ricans being considered globally, attempting to recollect the defining aspects of Puerto Rican culture and its collective psyche. Pedreira introduces his book by stating his pages will lack the admiring tone that the Puerto Rican complacency has created to measure Puerto Rican reality, and criticizes the optimistic generally-help perception of Puerto Rican history that makes us believe we are the non plus ultra of the Antillian countris. He refers to Puerto Ricans as aplatanados or people who do not take action. He calls us an indefinable nation that has in its delusion of greatness the desire of hiding from itself and others the defects of our yearnings and conflicted identity, as we are the “American gesture of the culture of Spain”. Pedreira identifies his time of the 1940s as one of indecision and transition, and calls on the abrupt discontinuity of our national evolution. He expresses our inability to take action and the lamenting of colonial reality.


Petrullo, Vicenzo. Puerto Rican Paradox. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947.

Vicenzo’s goal is to interpret what happens to a people when denied self-government. He is a Texan who strives to understand the problems facing the millions of Spanish-speaking US citizens whose “treatment by the United States has been neither entirely good nor entirely bad”. Puerto Rican Paradox begins by understanding the culture of the island’s people. Vicenzo understands that Puerto Rico is an old nation that has a set of concrete beliefs and ideologies both cultural and religious that will not be replaced with the conflicting US counterpart. Vicenzo also understands the huge language and geographical barriers that have not allowed the Puerto Ricans to fully integrate into US society. He also discusses the US treatment of Puerto Ricans as lesser beings or even as immigrants when on mainland US. Vicenzo believes the most appropriate solution to the Puerto Rican Paradox is improved relations, greater integration of cultures, and sovereignty of the Puerto Rican people, but does not believe independence is a proper solution.



Rise of nationalism, revolutionary insurrections and the fight for independence

Painting of Pedro Albizu Campos with the Nationalist rendition of the Puerto Rican flag in the background.

“Porque cuando la tiranía es ley, la revolución es orden”.

“Because when tyranny is law, revolution is order”.

-Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos


Silén, Juan Angel. We, the Puerto Rican People: A Story of Oppression and Resistance. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. Río Piedras, PR: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Silén strives “to explain the Puerto Rican people’s fight for independence in a simple, clear, and reasoned way”. The book does not delve into the defining aspects of Puerto Rican national character, but instead attempts to find a solution to the Puerto Rican political problem and “to search for a positive view of the Puerto Rican”. Silén refers to the Lares revolution (El Grito de Lares) of September 23, 1868 as a pivotal moment in which different strata of society came together to demand independence from Spain and the abolition of slavery. Silén shows deep dissatisfaction with the role the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie played in supporting autonomism stating the movement was “led by those most conservative in action, most aristocratic in essence, and only revolutionary in appearance”. Silén identifies the large gap that existed between the countrymen and the elite as the elite who viewed them in a sub-human condition. Under U.S. dominion important thing to highlight is how “Puerto Ricans could arrive at assimilationsim in reaction to the discrimination, denial of rights, and racism which they- especially our black population- had experienced from their own ruling class”.  He reflects on the effects of the loss of hope of the people, and the effects of the “basic discrepancy between what was preached to us and the facts of our life” referring to the American promise and their non-commitment. The development of the Puerto Rican psyche is discussed through what Richard Levins identifies as the six facets of situation: progress, concern about social degeneration, democratic convictions, class consciousness, nationalism, passivity and violence. Silén believes Puerto Rico must achieve independence only through force, he finalizes his essay-style book by stating that the dissolution of the colony will only come through force, and in Che Guevara’s word proclaims “Independece or Death!”.



Albizu Campos, Pedro. “Speech of September 23, 1950, commemorating the rising at Lares”. Lares, Puerto Rico, 1950. http://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/paredon/PAR02501.pdf.

Albizu Campos was Puerto Rico’s most prominent, well-spoken and influential nationalist leader.  Albizu Campos radically changed his political and ideological views after becoming the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard Law School. Albizu Campos was an outspoken nationalist, founder of the Nationalist Independence Party, who frequently denounced United States treatment of Puerto Rico and fervently fought for independence.  This historic speech was delivered in a moment where many felt independence was truly within reach.  The U.S. response in containing Puerto Rican identity as much it could only infuriated the Nationalist Party members and resulted in Albizu’s convocation of a revolution. The latter U.S. imprisonment and dehumanization of Albizu Campos had a traumatic effect on the island’s national psyche.  Albizu Campos commences by saying “It is not easy to give a speech when we have our mother laying in bed and an assassin waiting to take her life”; this moving speech ends stating that the only way to defy all the injustices made by the U.S. government is “as the men of Lares defied despotism, with the revolution”.


Torres, Michael and Teresa Venegas. “Who Is Albizu Campos?” (Film Trailer). Los Angeles, CA. http://www.whoisalbizu.com/?page_id=24

This short video is the trailer for the documentary film “Albizu” that tells the story of the revolutionary hero Pedro Albizu Campos and his eternal struggle for Puerto Rican independence.   He was  incarcerated on accusations of terrorism, was granted an unfair trial and was later proven to be treated in sub-human conditions for medical experimentations while imprisoned. Albizu Campos was a very contradictory figure at the time, supported by the Puerto Rican people but condemned by the local and federal government.


Guerra, Luis. Popular Expression and National Identity in Puerto Rico: The Struggle for Self, Community, and Nation. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Guerra’s book focuses on the changing community of Puerto Rico. He focuses on the promise and disillusion of Americanization, and expresses the loss of hope that characterized the Puerto Rican mentality of the early 20th century. The book describes Puerto Rican identity through folklore and proceeds to analyze deeper more specific aspects of society like views of women and blackness. The book presents the initial negative interpretation of the jíbaro and the transition of the concept in more modern times as local elites have appropriated the term as their own in a psychological national nostalgia. The book concludes by studying the psychological effects that colonial rule has on the community today.


Additional information

War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. Accessed December 5, 2015.  website. http://waragainstallpuertoricans.com/videos/

War Against All Puerto Ricans is a revolutionary group that through the media projects pro-independence videos and critiques to Puerto Rican government officials as well as federal policies and individuals; their webpage includes a series of revolutionary videos. There is an interesting film on the history of Pedro Albizu Campos, providing an analysis of the popular nationalist political leader who was condemned, incarcerated and tortured by the federal government, additionally providing a look at American perception of Puerto Ricans during the mid 1900s.


The deepening financial crisis and increasing debt

The financial crisis in Puerto Rico has interminable layers and complications that provoke even harsher circumstances on the island.  Trade restrictions and border regulations that exclusively permit U.S. vessels to enter the island have prevented significant trade relations with many major countries.  Since Puerto Rico is not a state, it is not allowed to adhere to Chapter 9 of the Federal Bankruptcy Law which provides a breathing space and more qualitative aid to states that declare bankruptcy. There is also an economic implication to Puerto Rico’s tourism industry, as the residents of many neighboring countries are unable to easily visit the island, stunting its development of tourism.

Capitol building in San Juan on the Anniversary of the creation of the Free Associated State.

Dayen, David. “How Hedge Funds Deepen Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis”. The American Prospect Magazine, Longform. Winter 2016 Issue.

This article delves on how vulture investors are taking advantage of the Puerto Rican debt crisis that has impoverished its citizens and resulted in exorbitant unemployment. Investors are in able to bend the laws and get away with purchasing luxury real estate at dirt prices due to the US government’s lack of willingness to assist the island and work with its leaders to mediate the debt crisis. The article allows the reader to understand the many complex layers that are involved in Puerto Rico’s rapid decay. Dayen presents how investors were sent to “salavage” the island’s economy as the federal government would not allow Puerto Rico to adhere to Chapter 9 of the Federal bankruptcy law that allows States to file for bankruptcy. Since Puerto Rico is prohibited from declaring bankruptcy despite its debt of $72 billion, investors are able to purchase real-estate at dirt prices.


Fletcher, Michael A. and Steven Mufson. “How Washington helped create Puerto Rico’s staggering debt crisis”.  Barceloneta, PR: The Washington Post, July 9, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/puerto-ricos-problems-can-often-be-traced-to-one-source-washington/2015/07/09/2cbd401e-21cd-11e5-84d5-eb37ee8eaa61_story.html

The journalists report on how the federal government holds a large responsibility to the Puerto Rican people, and how their ineffective policies and the backwardness of Puerto Rico’s confusing political status provoked the financial crisis.  This article is significant in that it was the first instance that a major American periodical reported negatively on the federal government’s restrictions. Before this article was published, the general perception of the crisis in mainland United States was that it was ignited by misgovernment of Puerto Rican leaders.



Everything you should know about Puerto Rico’s debt

Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post provides insight on how the federal government triggered the increasing Puerto Rican debt crisis by imposing tax restrictions that slowly tarnished the island’s economy.


Political representatives call for U.S. action

Political leaders of the New Progressive Party (Pro-Statehood), the Independence Party, and independent candidates are all delivering a similar message: the Puerto Rican people are slowly losing their island, and they seem to have no control over this. Everyone seems to agree that one or the other, independence or statehood, must be granted soon in order to save the island from total economic distress and to finally guarantee political stability.


Pierluisi: The Urgent Need for Congressional Action on Puerto Rico

The candidate of the New Progressive Party for Governor of Puerto Rico and current Resident Commissioner, the sole Puerto Rican Representative in Congress, recently addressed the US House of Representatives on December 9, 2015 calling for action in the enveloping economic crisis that results from the exorbitant and unpayable debt along with the brain drain, all of which Pierluisi states are due to or heightened by the ambiguous political status of Puerto Rico.


Alexandra Lúgaro: Message from Puerto Rico to the U.S. Government (2015)

Alexandra Lúgaro is running for Governor of Puerto Rico as an independent candidate. She posted this video on October 14, 2015 appealing to the United States government to “assume their responsibility” to the Puerto Rican people.  This video was added to reflect the resonance of the Puerto Rican crisis to people with different and conflicting political aspirations.



Appeals to International Intervention

The recent surge in international attention on Puerto Rico’s political status provides its people with hope that a significant change is upcoming. I can only hope that this attention leads to action, and that people will remember our stateless nation and how colonialism still in fact lives today, ironically at the hands of the country who claims to protect the world’s right to democratic fairly elect government. It is truly a disgrace that in 2015 a struggling colony of 3.5 million people stands where a small yet powerful independent country should.


United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization, 3rd and 4th Meetings. Crippling Trade Policies, Brain Drain, Sluggish Economy Constrain Puerto Rico’s Progress, Petitioners Tell Decolonization Committee as Session Resumes. http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/gacol3281.doc.htm. GA/COL/3281. New York: 22 June 2015.

The Special Committee of 24 heard from petitioners condemning the “imperialist” policies of the United States that have caused a massive brain drain, or the fleeing of the most educated young national elites, who would otherwise stay on the island, to move to the mainland US for better job opportunity and a more stable government system. The Special Committee approved a resolution urging the United States to allow Puerto Ricans to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination. The petitioners included a wide range of groups from representatives of the College of Law, of the pro-statehood Party, the pro-Independence Party, the National Sovereignty of Borinken Party, the National Lawyers Guild International Committee, among others. The New Progressive Party, or pro-statehood party, representative was the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico Pedro Pierluisi. Pierluisi is Puerto Rico’s sole Representative to US Congress and is not allowed voting rights. The Party leader expressed his dissatisfaction with the intolerable status of Puerto Rico that has led to severe economic and health-care crises. He signals out the lack of US action following the Puerto Rican plebiscite in 2014 that affirmed Puerto Rican desire for a consolidation of a clear political status.


Phillip Arroyo Testimony at the United Nations on June 22, 2015

Phillip Arroyo is a Puerto Rican national studying Law at the United States. Arroyo denounces the undemocratic treatment of Puerto Rico. Arroyo refers to the Supreme Court Insular Cases, in which the Court justifies the undemocratic and unequal treatment of Puerto Rican people as necessary because the island is an unincorporated American territory, inhabited by “alien races and savages that would never adapt to the American way of life”.  Arroyo calls on the United Nations to sanction the United States, which he refers to as the Nation of hypocrisy, for violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.




Additional background information: Early history, life under Spanish rule and the granting of autonomy in 1897

Miller, Paul G. Historia de Puerto Rico, Edición de 1949. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally & Company, 1949.

This book provides an extensive detailed early history of Puerto Rico, starting with the island’s discovery in 1493. The book focuses on the imperial domination of Spain and the sluggish development of the island. It follows by describing the many public insurrections that occurred in opposition to Spanish colonial rule starting in 1770, with protests on the many deprivations of the island resulting in the Spanish enactment of the Ley Autonómica de 1897 in which the government granted Puerto Rico full autonomy. This period ended in 1898 with the Spanish loss in the Spanish-American War, resulting in the transferal of control to the United States stated in the Treaty of Paris and the US imposition of military rule. The book fails to consider the nationalistic aspect of the Puerto Rican dissatisfaction with Spanish rule. The book proceeds to discuss the administrative changes enacted by the United States, including the Foraker Act and the granting of U.S. Citizenship in March 1917 in the wake of World War I, imposing mandatory military on all Puerto Rican men. A section discusses the development under American sovereignty, which is factually incorrect as Puerto Rico is not sovereign and has never enjoyed sovereignty from the United States.  Miller’s perception of Puerto Rico in the late 1940s is extremely positive, he praises Puerto Rican economic development and refers to the island as a haven in a region of instability.  Recent developments, however, prove that the temporary economic prosperity of Puerto Rico was unsustainable whilst pertaining to its current political status.  Miller’s perception of Puerto Rico in the late 1940s is extremely positive, he praises Puerto Rican economic development and refers to the island as a haven in a region of instability.

Martí, José. Escritos Desconocidos de José Martí: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Propagnda revolucionaria, Juicios, Crítica, Estados Unidos. Compilation by Carlos Ripoll. New York, NY: Eliseo Torres & Sons, 1971.

Escritos Desconocidos de José Martí are unpublished works that the distinguished Cuban national hero wrote during the last five years of his life while living in exile in New York. Martí was one of the leading members of Club Borínquen for Puerto Rican independence, that collaborated in large part with the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Puerto Rico and Cuba were very closely tied in their struggle against the Spanish throne, the two island-nations plotted together and developed the sister flags of the islands who together fought for independence.  Martí had a strong affinity towards Puerto Rican intellectuals like Ramón Emeterio Betances and Eugenio María de Hostos, with whom he frequently met as they all were political rebels living in exile in New York. This compilation primarily consists of works Martí wrote for newspapers and other periodicals or journals such as Patria from 1892-1895.  In a publication about Puerto Rican independence, Martí calls upon Puerto Ricans to take their freedom themselves, quoting Rosario Acuña “¡Libertad! ¡Libertad! La quieres Roma? Pues eso no se pide, eso se toma.”.


“Cuba y Puerto Rico son                  

sobre el mismo corazón…                

¡Que mucho si en la ilusión               How much if in the illusion
que mil tintes arrebola,                     that a thousand 
sueña la musa de Lola                       the muse Lola dreams 
con ferviente fantasía,                       with fervent fantasy
de esta tierra y de la mía                  of making this land and mine
hacer una patria sola!”                     one homeland

– Lola Rodríguez de Tío, “A Cuba”


Puerto Rican flag to the left, Cuban flag to the right