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Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
H.R. 3024 requires a referendum to be held by December 31, 1998, on Puerto Rico's path to self-government either through U.S. statehood or through sovereign independence or free association. It requires the President to submit to the Congress for approval legislation for: (1) a transition plan of at least ten years which leads to full self-government for Puerto Rico; and (2) a recommendation for the implementation of such self-government consistent with Puerto Rico's approval. It sets forth specified requirements with respect to the referendum and congressional procedures for consideration of legislation. - one of many phony federal initiatives for determination of Puerto Rico's status, this one from Don Young of Alaska in 1997

There has been a fair amount of talk regarding the vote in Puerto Rico for statehood in a referendum held in its most recent election (Puerto Rico votes on the same calendar as the U.S. presidential election.) The claim is Puerto Rico votes for statehood for the first time:

For the first time in their history, a majority of Puerto Ricans expressed support for U.S. statehood in a non-binding referendum on the future of the island's relationship with Washington. [...] Just over 61 percent of voters favored seeking to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, while 33.31 percent supported an enhanced commonwealth arrangement and just 5.53 percent were in favor of full independence.
There are a couple of problems with this take: (1) the status quo was not among the choices in the statehood portion of the referendum and (2) Puerto Rican support for statehood is largely irrelevant—the United States is not close to offering statehood to Puerto Rico.

The history of non-binding referendums and Congressional action and inaction regarding statehood for Puerto Rico is instructive here. So, without further ado, a little history.

The Spanish-American War

Long after the Monroe Doctrine had been issued, Spain retained possessions in the Western Hemisphere, most notably Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1898, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the author of The Influence of Sea Power on History, urged the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean Sea for porting of American naval ships.

Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, was a strong adherent of Mahan's views. In an 1897 letter to Mahan, Roosevelt said:

Until we definitely turn Spain out of those islands (and if I had my way that would be done tomorrow), we will always be menaced by trouble there. We should acquire the Danish Islands and, by turning Spain out, should serve notice that no strong European power, and especially not Germany, should be allowed to gain a foothold by supplanting some weak European power. I do not fear England - Canada is a hostage for her good behavior but I do fear some of the other powers.

And so began the drive to gin up a war with Spain—the desire for porting in the Caribbean Sea. The war itself was quick and brutal, and the United States took possession of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Ostensibly, Cuba was granted independence a few years later (but see the Platt Amendment). Puerto Rico, however, remained a U.S. possession.

U.S. Rule of Puerto Rico

Ironically, there was significant support in Puerto Rico for statehood at the time. But not much interest from the United States. Indeed, that storyline tells the story of Puerto Rico statehood since. Instead, the United States provided certain levels of self government for Puerto Rico over time. In 1900, it was the Foraker Act, which ended military rule on Puerto Rico and created a local civilian government, subject of course, to the United States. The Foraker Act and its favoritism for American carpetbaggers, sparked the first real sparks for separation from the United States, including the formation of the Puerto Rico Independence Party (known today by its Spanish acronym (PIP.))  

In the same time period, the reach of the United States Constitution to territories controlled by the U.S. was litigated a number of times before the Supreme Court of the United States, a series of cases that came to be known as the Insular Cases. In Downes v. Bidwell, the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution, in most cases, followed the flag, but that the inhabitants of such territories do not become citizens of the United States:

There seems to be no middle ground between this position and the doctrine that if their inhabitants do not become, immediately upon annexation, citizens of the United States, their children thereafter born, whether savages or civilized, are such, and entitled to all the rights, privileges and immunities of citizens. If such be their status, the consequences will be extremely serious. Indeed, it is doubtful if Congress would ever assent to the annexation of territory upon the condition that its inhabitants, however foreign they may be to our habits, traditions, and modes of life, shall become at once citizens of the United States.

In 1917, the Foraker Act was replaced by the Jones Act, which provided U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. The cynical would no doubt see a connection to the passage the same year of the Selective Service Act and the possibility of U.S. entry into World War I. As citizens, the argument for Puerto Rican conscription into the U.S. military would certainly be more defensible. Under the Jones Act, the governor of Puerto Rico remained a U.S. appointed official.

In 1922, Pedro Albizu Campos joined in the formation of  the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which advocated for the violent removal of U.S. rule. Albizu was charged with sedition in 1935 and sent to federal prison. Americans best know the Nationalists from their attacks on Congress in 1954.

The Commonwealth

Starting with a Congressional enactment permitting Puerto Ricans to elect their governor in 1948 and culminating with the enactment of Public Law 600, also known as the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, the United States moved toward providing Puerto Rico with complete local self government, subject to federal law, in which Puerto Rican would play no electoral part in formulating. Supported by the Popular Democratic Party (PPD by its Spanish acronym), headed by Luis Munoz Marin, the commonwealth was approved by the Puerto Rican people through the ratification of the Puerto Rico Constitution with 81 percent voting in favor. Munoz Marin was elected governor for 3 consecutive terms and Puerto Rico experienced tremendous economic growth throughout the period, and the PPD dominated Puerto Rican government uninterrupted for 16 years.

Referendums on Puerto Rico's Political Status

In 1967, Puerto Rico held a  non-binding referendum on status and commonwealth won with 61 percent of the vote. Support for statehood grew to close to 40 percent. Subsequent votes showed support for the status quo eroding, in 1993 it was 48.6 percent commonwealth, 46 percent pro-statehood, in 1998, it was 46.6% percent pro-statehood, 50.4 percent none of the above.

In the meantime, the political status of Puerto Rico was barely considered in Washington. Certainly legislation was proposed, due in most part to lobbyists and fundraising on behalf of certain legislators like Don Young and Bennett Johnston, but no serious consideration was ever given to admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

And of course every President names a task force that submits the same report, based on the same Congressional Research Service conclusions (PDF).

And then, nothing happens. The most recent results simply are not going to change that, in my opinion at least. Let's explore why on the flip.

Could Puerto Rico become the 51st State? Not Any Time Soon

It has been 54 years since any states have been admitted to the union, 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted at the same time. This dual admittance is of extreme significance. Why? Because the admittance of both states were believed to negate the political impact in terms of national politics. Ironically, it was Hawaii that was believed to be the Republican state and Alaska to be the Democratic state. Best laid plans.

Puerto Rico would be viewed as the admittance of a Democratic state, and rightly so. Two additional Democratic senators and likely 5 or 6 of 7 House Democratic representatives would be the likely upshot of granting Puerto Rico statehood.

But what of the Latino issue? Wouldn't denying Puerto Rico statehood exacerbate GOP problems with Latinos? Probably, but the cost of admitting Puerto Rico would be an even greater calamity for Republicans.

Beyond that, as demonstrated by Rick Santorum in the GOP primaries, Republicans simply oppose the admittance of a predominantly Spanish speaking entity.

Maybe in a few decades this opposition might be overcome, but not anytime soon.

So what do the most recent referendum results on Puerto Rico's status portend? In my view, precisely nothing. But if independence had won, or even garnered meaningful support, the United States would be ready to grant Puerto Rico independence as soon as you please. The problem for independence supporters is that it is not supported by a significant number of Puerto Ricans /(no more than 4%.)

The reality is that Puerto Rico no longer has military significance to the United States. And Washington does not give much thought to Puerto Rico. And when they do, the last thing they are thinking about is statehood for Puerto Rico. The few times their minds were concentrated on it, Republicans were aghast.

It will not happen. At least, not any time soon. So what then?

Not statehood, which will not receive support from Washington. Not independence, which has little support in Puerto Rico. That leaves the status quo - commonwealth (and not the "enhanced" variety.)

And so it shall be for the foreseeable future. In my opinion of course.

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