Puerto Rico’s Political Status and the 2012 Plebiscite: Background and Key Questions Page: 4 of 17
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Puerto Rico's Political Status and the 2012 Plebiscite: Background and Key Questions
Congress has considered Puerto Rico's "political status" a term of art referring to the
relationship between the federal government and a territorial government for more than a
century. As Figure 1 shows, Puerto Rico lies approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Miami and
1,500 miles from Washington, DC. Despite being far outside the continental United States, the
island has played a unique role in American politics and policy since the United States acquired
Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898. It is the largest of the five' major U.S. territories, hosts the
biggest population, features heavy traffic and commerce with the mainland, and has long-standing
ties with the U. S. military (both as a strategic location and home to service members).
Figure I. Puerto Rico and Surrounding Area
- *San Juan
-- ~North Atlaintic Oceain
o 295 590 Miles
o 295 590 KM
Source: CRS figure using data from Map Resources (2012).
Beginning in 1900, Congress delegated authority over most local matters to a civilian territorial
government. Over the next 50 years, Congress recognized a delegate to the U. S. House (the
Resident Commissioner); granted Puerto Ricans U. S. citizenship; and established a federal-style
civilian government, including a popularly elected governor and Legislative Assembly. Whether
the island should remain a territory, become a state, or become independent remains unsettled.
Status is arguably the dominant issue in Puerto Rican politics, along which parties align and
politics is organized.
For the first time since 1998, the people of Puerto Rico went to the polls in November 2012 to
vote on whether to change their status and, if so, how. Although the 2012 plebiscite was a
1 Despite consisting of three major islands, Puerto Rico is typically referred to as "the island," as a reference to the
largest island of the same name. Culebra and Vieques are also inhabited. A fourth major island, Mona, primarily serves
as a nature preserve.
2 The other four inhabited territories are American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
(CNMI), Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Congressional Research Service
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Garrett, R. S. Puerto Rico’s Political Status and the 2012 Plebiscite: Background and Key Questions, report, June 25, 2013; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc822693/m1/4/: accessed December 17, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.