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World Day of Social Justice: Expanding democratic rights in Puerto Rico

Portrait of Girton College Postgraduate student Sebastian Delgado Suarez (MPhil 2023), positioned in front of a background of large leaf foliage

On World Day of Social Justice, Sebastián Delgado Suárez (MPhil 2023) shares his motivation for studying history to help understand and promote representative democracy in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. Territory since 1898, administered by the federal government.  Since then, it has lacked meaningful representation in Congress and voting rights in federal elections.  Still, it has staked out greater self-governing abilities, with the high-water mark being the 1952 constitution-making process. 

Scholars have now dismissed this process as a mere fig leaf—meant to divest the U.S. of an imperial reputation as it prepared to tackle the Soviet Union.  These scholars have also approached the process from a 30,000-foot view and overlooked on-the-ground debates during the constitution-making process. 

My dissertation aims to reconstruct these debates. By approaching these debates as matters of political and legal history, I want to assess how the Puerto Rican people and the federal government perceived the process: Was it a fig leaf?  Was it an extraordinary step in self-governance?  Or was it neither? 

My dissertation’s aims go beyond these abstract considerations: Now that the federal government has a financial oversight board managing Puerto Rico’s finances and considering a U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that Puerto Rico derives its sovereignty from the federal government, the island’s government searches for ways to remain autonomous in the absence of statehood or independence.  I hope my research can help clarify what the island—and the federal government—can do under the commonwealth (or is Spanish, Estado Libre Asociado) arrangement.

For me, this project goes beyond academic curiosity. I am from Puerto Rico. This issue consumed hours of kitchen-table conversations growing up at my grandparents’ house, but I had limited experience of studying the fundamental topic representative government. 

My grandparents’ move to Florida and a course on constitutional law renewed my curiosity on the subject and made me question why millions of U.S. citizens and nationals lacked certain rights. I turned that scholarly curiosity into action. My passions were rekindled and better informed by my academic pursuits: the personal became academic, and both were informed by the comprehensive understanding I gained from my studies and professional activities. 

This led me to work with an organisation called Equally American (now called Right to Democracy), that dedicates itself to achieving parity in voting rights and federal representation for the over 3 million U.S. citizens and nationals throughout U.S. Territories. Working here was transformational in two ways: 1) it supplemented my research on Puerto Rico’s political and legal issues; 2) it reconnected me with my island and its people. Above all, working with this organization made me feel that I came closer to achieving my grandfather’s vision for Puerto Ricans: to be an equal part of the American polity, with a voice and a vote. 

Yet research on the constitution-making process has led me beyond Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rico’s arrangement, for example, is like that between Kurdistan and Iraq. This similarity has led me to work with the Kurdistan Chronicle, where I commission and edit pieces about Kurdish autonomy and self-determination.  By the end of the dissertation, I hope to apply the lessons learned about Puerto Rico’s constitution-making process to the Kurdish-Iraqi context.  Through this, my aim is for both Kurdistan and Puerto Rico to maximise their current arrangements and work within the set frameworks to achieve the fullest version of self-government. 

After my time at Cambridge, I want to attend law school in the U.S. so that I can better represent Puerto Ricans and produce scholarship informed by a legal education.  In the end, I wish to use the law as a mechanism for positive change, one that will improve the relationship between the U.S., Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. 

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