After Sotomayor, Puerto Rico's Big Question

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court has focused attention on her Puerto Rican roots — at a time when the question of the island’s political status is turning up in Congress and the United Nations.

Sotomayor is regarded with almost universal pride in Puerto Rico, Inter Press News Service reports — and many there also hope her time in the spotlight will impact the ongoing debate over U.S. statehood or independence.

Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno took his case in favor of statehood to Congress in June, when he endorsed a bill to hold an island-wide vote on the question, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported.

Almost simultaneously, the United Nations special committee on decolonization approved a resolution in support of Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence, the Daily Kos notes.

That resolution was proposed by Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba, a long-time advocate of Puerto Rican independence.

Although no plans are in place for an island-wide vote, there already is one thorny issue: how, or whether, to involve all four million Puerto Ricans who live in the U.S. mainland.

Under the bill now in Congress, only those Puerto Ricans living or born on the island could vote,, reports.

Those born in the United States — such as Sotomayor — wouldn’t be eligible.

Recent polls as reported in the San Juan-based Caribbean Business newspaper show more than 50 percent of those surveyed in Puerto Rico favor statehood, while a small but very vocal minority want independence.

U.S. control of Puerto Rico goes back to 1898 and the Spanish-American War.

Although Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917, even today those who live on the island cannot vote in presidential elections.

Puerto Rico was a U.S. colony until 1952, when its current status as a U.S. Commonwealth came into being. But as the U.N. resolution and the Congressional bill demonstrate, for many that process of decolonization for Puerto Rico has not been completed.

As for Sotomayor, she appears to have a long-time interest in island politics.

Her undergraduate senior thesis at Princeton was about Puerto Rico’s political status; she also explored Puerto Rico-U.S. relationships as a law student at Yale, according to Ballot Access News.

More noteworthy is the fact, that if seated, she could be called upon to hear cases involving Puerto Rico’s political status.

It was a series of Supreme Court rulings at the beginning of the 20th century that laid the groundwork for Puerto Rico’s still-ambiguous status today, by denying full statehood to the newly acquired territory based on what Virginia Law magazine described as “a combination of racist and populist reasoning.”

Federal Judge Juan Torruella, speaking on a 2007 panel at the University of Virginia, said the court rulings created “a political ghetto in the territories, from which there is no escape or solution by inhabitants because they lack the political power to influence the political institution.”

–Ronnie Lovler/


“Puerto Rico: Pride in Sotomayor rekindles debate over status”
Inter Press News Service, July 9, 2009

“Puerto Rico governor presses for referendum on status”
Latin America Herald Tribune, June 25, 2009

“UN approves resolution on Puerto Rico”
Daily Kos, June 25, 2009

“Poll: Statehood gains ground as status preference”
Caribbean Business Online, July 9, 2009

“Puerto Rico”
CIA World Factbook

“Puerto Rico tackles decades-old status issue”
ETaiwan News, June 125, 2009

“Congressional bill for Puerto Rico plebiscite gains more co-sponsors”
Ballot Access News, June 22, 2009

“Will Puerto Rico become the 51st state?”, June 27, 2009

“‘Insular cases’ made puerto rico status unclear: panel says”
Virginia Law, April 2, 2007

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