PROMESA: A promise that will not resolve Puerto Rico’s status issue

By: Zuleika Rivera

Queremos estadistad!” (We want statehood in Spanish) filled the steps of El Capitolio in Puerto Rico as the twelfth governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló Nevaros, was sworn into office.[1] He emphasized he would be traveling to Washington D.C. along with the Resident Commissioner, a non-voting member of the House of Representatives elected every for years by Puerto Ricans, to present Puerto Rico’s admission as the fifty first state of the United States.[2] Additionally, he will set in motion the Tennessee Plan to lobby for Puerto Rican statehood.[3] The Tennessee Plan is the name given to the strategy used by Tennessee and other former territories to enter the union as a state by pressuring Congress, after a self-declaration of statehood. On January 9, the pro-Statehood majority in the legislature will present a bill asking for a new, local plebiscite.[4] However, Puerto Rico is no stranger to these promises. Since Congress passed Public Law 600, Puerto Rico has had various plebiscites and the status of Puerto Rico has plagued Puerto Rican politics since it was a Spanish colony.[5]

On July 3, 1950, U.S. Congress passed Public Law 600 which recognized Puerto Ricans right to self-government and called for a referendum.[6] A majority of 81.9% elected to create the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; however, various plebiscites have re-visited the issue and all have re-affirmed the current status except the referendum of 2012. In the referendum of 2012, statehood won a majority of the votes but Congress refused to recognize the referendum due to its controversial nature.[7] The referendum posed two questions: (1) whether Puerto Ricans wish to continue the present form of territorial status and (2) asking the people to choose between statehood, independence, or a sovereign free associated state.[8] The populares, the pro-commonwealth party, asked its voters to abstain from voting and this resulted in 982 blank votes.[9] However, the plebiscite made it clear that Puerto Ricans want change.

For the past decade, Puerto Rico’s economy has been declining. One only needs to take a trip to the island to view the deterioration of the buildings, the closure of many local businesses, and the increase of taxes.[10] Certain streets are filled with graffiti saying “fuck promesa,” (Public Law 114-187) “no to the fiscal control board,” or “this isn’t grief, it’s resistance” signaling Puerto Ricans’ discontent at its current economic and political situation. Puerto Rico’s debt is so large and unsustainable that Congress passed Public Law 114-187, known as PROMESA, to restructure the island’s debt but this gave abroad powers of budgetary and financial control to its members.[11] PROMESA is seen as a last ditch effort to save Puerto Rico from a humanitarian disaster but many see the implications it has for the future of the island including but not limited to its autonomy and democracy.[12] Adding to the political crisis in the island, this past summer the Supreme Court of the United States decided Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle. The Court traced prosecutorial power all the way to Congress bypassing the Puerto Rican Constitution and in a way reaffirming Puerto Rico’s colonial status.[13] Therefore, it seems that for the first time since 1952 the time is ripe for a new referendum.

Governor Rosselló stated that his referendum would have two options: independence or statehood.[14] However, Congress will not release the $2.5 million dollars allocated for a referendum in Public Law 113-76 unless certain conditions are met.[15] The conditions stipulate that the money should be used to educate voters on the options; the U.S. Secretary of Justice must approve the definitions used for the status options; and seems to exclude an enhanced free associated state.[16] Nonetheless, Congress could alter the status through a statute regardless of what Puerto Ricans want because the Constitution’s territorial clause gives Congress broad powers over the management of its territories.[17] Even though the Resident Commissioner is a Republican and the majority of U.S. Congress is Republican, the GOP has been reluctant in the past to support pro-statehood legislation while Democrats tend to support such measures.[18] Many republican senators have stressed the need to focus on the fiscal crisis and not the status, emphasizing that the Fiscal Board would have control over the island for at least the next decade, and that statehood would be unlikely in the short term.[19] Additionally, it is unlikely that Puerto Rico’s status will change while the fiscal control board remains; so while some changes and new possibilities are coming to Puerto Rico in 2017, the status might not be one of them.


[1] See Jose A. Delgado, Agenda de Grandes Desafíos, El Nuevo Día, January 3, 2017. http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/nota/agendadegrandesdesafiosanteelcongreso-2277578/

[2] See id.

[3] See Rebecca Banuchi, Traza su norte en el gobierno, El Nuevo Día, January 3, 2017. http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/trazasunorteenelgobierno-2277594/

[4] See Rebecca Banuchi, Pluralidad de voces en el Senado, El Nuevo Día, January 3, 2017. http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/nota/pluralidaddevocesenelsenado-2277577/

[5] See Sam Garrett, Cong. Research Serv., r44721, Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for congress (2016).

[6] S. 3336, 81st Cong. § 446 (1950).

[7] The Last Colony (2015)

[8] See id.

[9] See id.

[10] Author’s own observations from living 18 years in the island and going back yearly.

[11] See Sam Garrett, Cong. Research Serv., r44721, Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for congress (2016).

[12] See COHA, PROMESA: The Puerto Rican Debt Crisis and its Restructuring, June 21, 2016. http://www.coha.org/promesa-the-puerto-rican-debt-crisis-and-its-restructuring/

[13] See Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, 579 S. Ct. 15-108 (2015)

[14] See Fox News, Puerto Rico’s new governor seeks statehood referendum amid crisis, January 2, 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/01/02/puerto-rico-new-gov-seeks-statehood-referendum-amid-crisis.html

[15] See Sam Garrett, Cong. Research Serv., r44721, Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for congress (2016).

[16] See Jose A. Delgado, Agenda de Grandes Desafíos, El Nuevo Día, January 3, 2017. Print.

[17] See Sam Garrett, Cong. Research Serv., r44721, Political Status of Puerto Rico: Brief Background and Recent Developments for congress (2016).

[18] See Jose A. Delgado, Llega con petición de estadidad, El Nuevo Día, January 2, 2017. http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/nota/jenniffergonzalezllegaalcongresoconpeticiondeestadidad-2277387/

[19] Jose A. Delgado, A Plan Based on the crisis, El Nuevo Día, January 7, 2017. http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/nota/aplanbasedonthecrisis-2278877/