The Commonwealths are self-governing and unincorporated territories of the United States. They are administered directly by the federal government of the United States and they are not part of any US state. This relationship can be compared to the one of a protectorate.

Historically they have their origin in three different circumstances:

  • Territories gained by US after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (1899). This includes the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Acts of Congress gave internal self government for Philippines (1916) and Puerto Rico (1920).
  • By means of an invasion (Haiti in 1915 and Dominican Republic in 1916) that established direct US administration that evolved in self government for both countries in 1917
  • The invasion of Cuba in 1928 has a means to re-establish order has specified by the Platt Amendment. Afterwards in 1929, it was negotiated and given a special status to Cuba (Associated Free State).

The US government, and Congress in some cases, retains exclusive powers on:

  • Defense, that includes the establishment of naval and military bases.The US guarantees the defense of the commonwealths against any foreign state. The Commonwealths have established their own armed forces has a National Guard or Commonwealth Army. In both cases they can be called to service the U.S. Army. It can enlist the citizens of a Commonwealth to military service.
  • It may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of a Commonwealth's independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.
  • Legislate on migration, nationality and citizenship.
  • Currency (except for Cuba)
  • Foreign relations with other states.
  • International trade. Tariffs between the US and commonwealths are settled by the legislation of each party unless there is a common trade treaty.
  • Supervise and control commonwealth finances and public debt.

On the last three, exceptions are made since 1924 with members and resolutions of the Pan-American Union

All Commonwealths have constitutions that have been approved has acts of the US Congress, previous passing of an enabling law for the Commonwealth to redact their constitution. The Commonwealths can reform their constitution, except in a few key points that must have the approval of the US Congress. Self-rule is basically carried out by an executive power (President), a bicameral legislative body and an independent judiciary. The executive and legislative are directly elected. The judiciary of Cuba, Philippines, Haiti and Dominica is independent of the US federal courts. Only Puerto Rico has right of appeals to the US Supreme Court. However land disputes and claims with US citizens or companies must be settled by the US federal courts of justice (Puerto Rico) or arbitration boards (the rest of the Commonwealths). The US Congress cannot alter the limits of a commonwealth, unless there is a mutual agreement. Nor US Congress or a commonwealth legislature can unilaterally declare independence.

Puerto Rico and the Philippines do not have representation in the U.S. Senate, but are represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a delegate who may vote in committee but not on the House floor. The rest of the Commonwealths does not have any representation in the US congress.

On the establishment of the Pan-American Union in 1924 the US Congress approved the Commonwealths and Americas Relations Act. This legislation, that is an enabling act, gave autonomy or limited powers to the commonwealths in the affairs of the Pan-American union. The Commonwealths are independent in their relations with the American republics has long has it does not impair or tend to impair the independence of the commonwealths and does not allow any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgement in or control over any portion. It allows the establishment and exchange of consulates between parties. It allows limited autonomy in public debt and finances if the Commonwealth must comply with resolutions of the Pan-American Union. In the cases of hemispheric trade the Pan-American resolutions must include the commonwealth enabling clause that allows the Commonwealths' legislatures the power to enact the resolutions in their territories.

In the case of Cuba, the 1928 Act that established the Associated Free State also includes the Commonwealths and Americas Relations Act and an update of the Platt Amendment.

The Commonwealths

Commonwealth Capital Status Area Population
Flag of the Philippines Commonwealth of the Philippines Manila US direct administration 1899, commonwealth status 1916 299,764
Flag of Haiti Commonwealth of Haiti Port-au-Prince US occupation 1915, commonwealth status 1917 27,750
Flag of the Dominican Republic Dominican Commonwealth Santo Domingo US occupation 1916, commonwealth status 1917 48,422
Flag of Puerto Rico Commonwealth of Puerto Rico San Juan US direct administration 1899, commonwealth status1920 9,104
Flag of Cuba Associated Free State of Cuba Havana (La Habana) US occupation 1928, associated free state status 1929 109,884

Other territories

Besides the commonwealths there also exist the following non-self governing unincorporated territories:

Unicorporated territories Capital Status Area Population
Flag of American Samoa Samoa Pago Pago (1878-1922), Apia (since 1922) Former American Samoa (1878), including German Samoa by the Treaty of Versailles (1920). Although the US never signed the Treaty it assumed control and ownership of German Samoa by the London Settlement of 1921. 199 (1878-1921) / 3,030 (1921 to date)
Flag of Guam Guam Agana (Agaña) Unincorporated territory of US (1898) 541
Panama Canal Zone Flag Panama Canal Zone Balboa Unincorporated territory of US (1904) 1,430
Flag of the United States Virgin Islands United States Virgin Islands Charlotte Amalie Unincorporated territory of US (1904), brought from Denmark 346