The Diaspora’s Legal Right to Vote on Puerto Rico’s Status

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By: Luis Gallardo Rivera

It is already a ritual ingrained into our cultural fabric. Every few years a handful of political actors succeed in reviving the age old debate on Puerto Rico’s political status. The cycle usually involves a higher-than-normal interest in the topic, a barrage of radio commentaries, as well as your token congressional hearing. It is during this time that sound clips from barely-known congressmen from some harmless House subcommittee are treated as the Word of God among local pundits. Though federal interest – or at least, apparent federal interest – subsides as do the traditional arguments for and against statehood, there are occasional moments where someone brings up the idea of including the Puerto Rican Diaspora in whatever consultation is being conjured up.

diasporavoting-mediumThe interest in doing so at times may be founded in an interest to tilt the score in favor of one side in particular. Stateside Puerto Ricans, for example, can sometimes be even more patriotic than their island-based counterparts. This could lead one to believe that Puerto Ricans living stateside might be more inclined to protect the island’s national identity and political sovereignty. Interestingly enough, it is more likely that you will see a Diaspora community street or school named after nationalist Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos as opposed to historic pro-statehood figures such as José Barbosa or Luis A. Ferré. On the other hand, many stateside voters argue that Puerto Ricans who move to the U.S. have already expressed their preference simply by leaving the Commonwealth for the Diaspora.

Truthfully, we do not really know what the political tendencies are for Puerto Ricans living stateside. There have been a few small scale studies, here and there, but preferences tend to mirror those of Puerto Ricans living in the island. Surely, many opponents of the Diaspora vote would change their position on the matter if it were concluded that stateside Puerto Ricans favored their particular status preference. It is ironic how former Governor Luis Fortuño, for example, gladly accepted an endorsement from Marc Anthony, but on the other hand would deny him a vote in a status consultation.

But sadly, we are missing the big picture. Anybody serious about tending to Puerto Rico’s political limbo knows that whatever happens, the process must heed to international standards. Was it not both former pro-statehood Governor Pedro Rosselló and Puerto Rican Independence Party President Ruben Berríos stomping on the floor of the United Nations not-so-long-ago? The language of both sides tend to invoke the almost mystic concept of “self determination.”

Yes, nations and peoples have the right to self determination. This we all know. Unfortunately, international law does not agree on a sole definition of what a “nation” or “peoples” actually is, or which groups have a legitimate claim to self determination. It all boils down to how Puerto Ricans want to perceive themselves as a “peoples”. But when compared to the diasporas of other nations, the tendency is apparent, with some attempted legal definitions of “peoples” including those who are self-evident via ethnic, linguistic, or historical ties or a community with mutual affection or sentiment. Puerto Rico is all of the above.

Puerto Rico’s unique migration pattern resulted in a Diaspora that is much more interconnected to the island than those of other nations. Puerto Rico’s current flag, per se, was first designed and sewn by the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Puerto Rico’s first elected governor was taunted as a child for his gringo accent. The Puerto Rican identity runs deep and the connection between the island and the Diaspora is impressive; more so than any other ethnic group in the United States as well as most of those around the world.

Defining “nation” or “peoples” solely by residency is too limited of an interpretation, especially within Puerto Rico’s cultural context. Not to mention, though a Puerto Rican may at the moment not be living in Puerto Rico, whatever change in status will surely affect him, his children, and/or his extended family. More so than an Anglo-American who picks up and moves to Puerto Rico and registers to vote. But where would one draw the line? How would one go about defining exactly who are Puerto Rican nationals? Does the definition include immigrants? Second generation immigrants? Half-Puerto Ricans?

The framework for such differentiation is already present and is found in “Puerto Rican citizenship”, an actual legal status that exists to the surprise of many. Granted in 1900 under the Foraker Act and acknowledged in federal government administrative notices and Supreme Court cases, “Puerto Rican citizenship” has technically never been taken away. In fact, Puerto Rican State Department Regulation #7347 currently extends Puerto Rican citizenship to any individual born in Puerto Rico or with at least one parent born in Puerto Rico. And though governors go back and forth deciding on how they wish to enforce it, the fact is that Puerto Ricans have had their own citizenry since at least 1897.

Many nations – including México, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela – have extended the right to vote on national matters to citizens regardless of where they live. Though Mexican and Brazilian citizens cannot vote for local and state elections, even citizens abroad may vote for President. The Diaspora vote is often decisive for such electoral events. Said nations not only honor their diaspora, but acknowledge the crucial role that they play in the development of a national and historical identity.


Luis Gallardo Rivera holds a M.A in public administration and is a legislator for the Municipality of Aguas Buenas in Puerto Rico. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Municipal Legislators of Puerto Rico and teaches courses in public administration for the University of Phoenix.

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