Although the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico does not grant the governor the title of head of state, it can be argued that he or she is, not only with respect to official functions, but also because of the symbolic value the political culture places on the institution of governor. For the Puerto Rican community, the governor, more than any other state institution, embodies the island’s political entity.

The opposite can also be argued: that due to Puerto Rico’s subordinate relationship with the United States, the head of state of Puerto Rico is the president of the United States. Although some assume that the level of political autonomy the island acquired in 1952, when the Commonwealth Constitution was approved (and which remains the source of debate in the public arena in Puerto Rico), gives the governor of Puerto Rico the power to represent the island before the international political community. This issue remains ambiguous in terms of the relative authority of the president of the United States and the governor of Puerto Rico.

In some countries, the head of state and the leader of the executive branch are two separate posts. In constitutional monarchies such as in Spain and the United Kingdom, the king or queen is the head of state but the chief executive is the person elected democratically by the people. In Britain, this is the prime minister, while in Spain it is the president of the Spanish government. In republican systems, however, the two posts, head of state and chief executive, are combined.

It is important to emphasize that today, when a governor of Puerto Rico attends international events representing Puerto Rico (except for events in which the federated states of the United States participate), the protocol typically used is the one for a head of state. This protocol of treating Puerto Rico as if it is operated as a nation state, despite its subordination to the United States, is often extended to other officials who represent the island in international events of all kinds, especially in the fields of culture and sports. But the issue takes on greater symbolic importance when the governor represents Puerto Rico before the international community. In 1979, for example, when the Pan-American Games took place in Puerto Rico, there was an interesting case that illustrated the general recognition of the governor of Puerto Rico as head of state. Under the protocol of the International Olympic Committee for events organized or sponsored by that organization, the inauguration ceremony of the games should be presided over by the head of state of the host country. For example, when the Olympics were held in Barcelona, Spain in 1992, it was the king, and not the president of the Spanish government, who presided over the ceremony. In the case of the Pan-American Games of 1979, at the insistence of the then-president of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee, Germán Rieckehoff Sampayo, that honor did not go to the president of the United States, but rather to the governor of Puerto Rico, Carlos Romero Barceló. It was an act whose irony did not go unnoticed.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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