The destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico has renewed attention on the island's relationship with the United States. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. overseas territory was a key part of the United States' drive to secure the Caribbean against hostile foreign powers. But as European powers declined while the United States grew to become the globe's dominant force, the Caribbean's immediate importance to U.S. foreign policy waned. Still, the region remains indispensable to U.S. national security, mainly because of its proximity to the mainland. No foreign powers are capable of making meaningful inroads into the Caribbean, although Russian and Chinese influence in such places as Cuba and Venezuela will continue to concern the United States.
Taken From Spain
Dominance over the Caribbean is essential to the United States, but the country's direct political control of Puerto Rico is more a legacy of how the United States set about achieving this foreign policy imperative. The United States wrested control of the island from Spain during the Spanish-American War in 1898. (Compared with fighting in other Spanish possessions such as Cuba and the Philippines, Puerto Rico was a relatively minor part of the conflict.) And while Cuba and the Philippine islands came under U.S. control, only Puerto Rico, which was smaller and lacked the strong pro-independence movements of Cuba and the Philippines, remained directly administered by the United States.
Since the early 20th century, the issue of independence — or a change in the island's relationship with Washington — has arisen periodically. In 1917, Washington laid the groundwork for Puerto Rico's present relationship. It was made into a self-governing, unincorporated territory whose citizens have the rights of those on the mainland United States. However, the island has no political representation in Congress, and its citizens are not able to vote in U.S. presidential elections (although they do vote in presidential primaries). Its governors were appointed by the U.S. president until 1947, when Luis Munoz Marin, the first democratically elected governor, took office.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, an independence movement steadily grew in Puerto Rico, although it was never widespread enough to meaningfully threaten U.S. control. In 1950, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, a pro-independence political movement, fomented a series of revolts that the United States put down by deploying the National Guard. Also that year, Puerto Rican separatists attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman. While separatists later injured five congressmen during an assault on the U.S. Capitol in 1954, the independence movement was seriously crippled after its main leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, was arrested during the 1950 revolts. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the United States continued to break up various cells advocating and carrying out violence in support of independence.
Congress Holds the Key
Because of Puerto Rico's status as a territory, the island's political future rests in the hands of the U.S. Congress. Puerto Rico's political scene is roughly divided between political figures who intend to uphold the status quo relationship with the United States and those who want to shift toward statehood. There is no serious movement toward independence. Since 1968, the island's status has been put to a vote five times in separate, nonbinding referendums. And the statehood option, which would make Puerto Rico the 51st state, has steadily gained ground. During the last referendum, held on June 11, 2017, that alternative won with 97 percent of the ballots — although turnout was less than 25 percent of registered voters.
Still, such referendums do not ensure that the island's status will change. Since Puerto Rico is a territory, any changes in its standing depend on the president and the legislature of the United States to execute them. And any referendums must be perceived as valid by U.S. authorities. But the main sticking point for U.S. authorities is political representation in Congress: Granting Puerto Rico two senators and several House representatives would prove controversial, as those seats could shift vote tallies in the legislative branch and benefit one party in federal elections. And those possibilities would reduce the will of Congress to even entertain a vote on statehood after a Puerto Rican referendum.
Meanwhile, despite recent referendums suggesting a shift toward statehood, there are no major economic or political drivers pushing Puerto Ricans themselves to a prompt resolution. While some parties and political figures have touted the benefits of statehood, Puerto Ricans have long been able to live, travel and work freely in the United States. Statehood would come with few material benefits for the average Puerto Rican, making it harder to drum up popular support to pressure Congress. Moreover, the recovery from Hurricane Maria will probably delay any attempts for a new vote, given that the island's authorities are overwhelmingly focused on rebuilding and need U.S. financial support to do so.
Thus, the storm, while a tragic humanitarian crisis, will have little impact on the future relationship between the United States and its island territory. With no serious push from Washington and no pressing motivations on the island, Puerto Rico is unlikely to seek statehood anytime soon.