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Non-Sovereign Caribbean Territories and Citizenship (3/4): United States

The United States arrived as a new player in the Caribbean region around the turn of the twentieth century. After its victory in the Spanish-American war in 1898 it permanently incorporated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and temporarily occupied Cuba (1898-1922), Haiti (1915-1931), and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924). The United States currently has two possessions in the Caribbean – Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the latter consisting of the islands St Thomas, St John, and St Croix.

In connection with Puerto Rico and Cuba, both countries being Spanish territory until 1898, Spanish courts have decided on the precise nationality status of these ‘overseas provinces’ (provincias de ultramar). An analysis by Ramón Viñas Farré explains that under Article 20(1)(b) of the Spanish Civil Code, persons whose father or mother was Spanish by birth and were ‘born in Spain’ (nacido en España) have an option right to Spanish nationality. However, it has been clarified by Spanish case law that Puerto Rico and Cuba are not to be considered Spanish territory for the purposes of this provision. A claim for a right to Spanish nationality by someone who was born in Puerto Rico in 1921 to parents born there in 1896 and 1897 was denied.

While falling under United States sovereignty since 1898 and 1917, respectively, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were never incorporated as separate federal states. Moreover, although they acquired a form of limited autonomy in 1952 and 1954, respectively, all competences essentially remained in American hands. In contrast to the Virgin Islands, which was purchased from Denmark in 1917 and has always had a more Anglophone outlook, Puerto Rican society has been characterized by a Latin culture due to its long colonial history under Spanish rule. The inhabitants of the islands are American citizens and consequently have the right of abode on American mainland. The number of Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders living in the United States is particularly high.

The status of ‘Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’ as held since 1952 effectively means that the island is an associated state (Estado Libre Asociado) ‘in the sense that it [is] legally bound to the federal government in a relationship founded on a communal agreement which, nevertheless, [can] be amended unilaterally by Washington’, according to Oostindie and Klinkers. Despite occasional calls for independence by independistas – some of whom even renounced U.S. citizenship in the hope that this would lead to affirmation of their Puerto Rican citizenship – the benefits of the U.S. passport, the right of abode in the United States, as well as the massive financial assistance results in only a very small minority advocating independence. The absence of a strong independence movement has not prevented support for the present associated status from waning, however, which is predominantly inspired by the claim that Puerto Rico has too little to say in the relationship with the United States. But there has never been majority support for Puerto Rico to become a separate U.S. federal state either, as it is thought to be incompatible with Puerto Rico’s Latin character.

The U.S. Virgin Islands became an unincorporated territory of the United States under the Revised Organic Act of 1954 (in force until this day), leading to a limited form of autonomy. In contrast to the relatively poor Puerto Rico, where according to Franklin Knight ‘associated statehood for forty years has made Puerto Rico somewhat different in degree, but certainly not basically different from the neighboring states of the Caribbean’, the U.S. Virgin Islands are more prosperous and self-supporting, and the population seems satisfied with the current governance arrangement under United States rule.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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