Puerto Rico and the Right of Accession
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
On June 11, 2017, Puerto Rico held a referendum on its legal status. Although turnout was low, 97% of ballots favored statehood over independence or the status quo. The federal government, however, has financial and political reasons to resist this preference: Puerto Rico would bring with it a massive, unpayable debt, and the potential to swing the current balance of power in Congress. The tension between Puerto Rico’s possible desire to pull closer to the mainland and Congress’s presumptive desire to hold it at arm’s length raises at least two important legal questions. Could Congress expel Puerto Rico by giving it “independence” against its will? Conversely, do the people of Puerto Rico have a right of “accession” to statehood, even if Congress does not act?
The answers are not obvious. International law, we argue, suggests that the people of Puerto Rico have a legal right to determine their own status vis-à-vis the mainland. Whether domestic law protects the same right of self determination is a more difficult question.