ELA Soberano: The BIG Lie for the Twenty-First Century

In Citizenship Equality, Commentary and Analysis, Enemies of Equality, H.R. 2499, Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Democracy Act, Self-Determination, Tennessee Plan, The Big Lie: The PPD's "Commonwealth" on July 20, 2010 at 11:51 PM
“Enhanced Commonwealth” Will Never Be Sovereign


On Monday, Sep. 28, 1959, TIME magazine published an article entitled Puerto Rico: Statehood Tree in which the “Commonwealth” founder, Luis Muñoz Marin described his creation (and the “new” relationship it engendered with the U.S.) as “like a tree; it may grow, but not into any other kind of tree.”

At the time, seven years into “Commonwealth” status and 11 years of Gov. Muñoz Marin’s administration, the quip was constructed to placate the rising discontent with the Estado Libre Asociado of Puerto Rico, which at that time was seeing the rise of a viable statehood party, by limiting the political panorama of the American citizens of Puerto Rico. Ironically, in today’s Puerto Rican status politics and their constitutional realities, Muñoz Marin’s Confucian botanical simile about the “new” relationship between San Juan and Washington has been turned on its head.

A little over 50 years later, Americans find themselves looking at another push by Puerto Rico’s statehood party to bring about an end to the current territorial status in Puerto Rico. Democratically elected by the People of Puerto Rico in 2008, the New Progressive Party won–by landslides–the governorship, the PR House by supermajority, the PR Senate by supermajority, and 48 out of 78 mayorships, which administer the municipios (counties) in Puerto Rico. Also, Puerto Ricans elected a PNP member, then attorney general of Puerto Rico, to represent them in Washington, D.C. as their non-voting resident commissioner.

Thus, the current unequal status of the American citizens of Puerto Rico, you see, is like a decaying tree; it will die, but in its place will stand a much stronger tree.

“The U.S. Constitution allows for three options for the future status of Puerto Rico: continuing territorial status (including the current Commonwealth system), statehood, and independence,” such is the representation of the 2005 report by The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. It seems that in the rush to proclaim permanent victory back in 1959, Gov. Muñoz Marin forgot one of the most elemental principles of American republicanism: one Congress cannot permanently bind a future Congress.

United by the belief that the 1950 Public Law 600 (and the resulting “Commonwealth” constitution of 1952) did nothing to change Puerto Rico’s colonial status, supporters of statehood, independence (with or without a free-association pact), and self-determination, in general, are prepared to fight any notion of an enhanced “Commonwealth” that by its very spirit would extend citizenship inequality for perhaps another century while, simultaneously, billing itself as permanent, sovereign, and free.

Regardless of the progression of events in any particular territory, there is a finite list of “requirements” that must (and have been) met prior to statehood: 1) the territory must have a large enough population; 2) the territory must honor the values and principles of a republican form of government; and 3) the territory’s residents vote on statehood. These three principles are foundational of the constitutional mandates on the admission of new states and the management of territories encapsulated in Article IV, Section 3, respectively.

The possible status options within the American constitutional system have been defined for 223 years and were most recently, and correctly, underscored by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. Territories of the United States have a very predictable trajectory: 1) the territory (land) is acquired; 2) Congress takes over and legislates; 3) Congress organizes the territory (with or without “incorporation”) through an organic act; 4) the territory grows and petitions for statehood/or independence; 5) Congress issues an enabling act; and 6) the wishes of the people of a territory become reality.

But for a process that is explicitly included in the text of the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 3), and that has been used many times for statehood and once for independence (eight states blazed their own trail), the uniqueness of the territory of Puerto Rico presents an awkward rhyme because the path outlined above has been mismanaged for over a century in relation to the Caribbean possession.

Puerto Rico meets all three principal requirements on its application for statehood, though its trajectory lacks precedent. For example, in said trajectory, Puerto Rico, of course, fulfilled the first milestone; it was acquired. Progressively, Congress fulfilled the second; it took over and legislated. Oddly enough, for the third milestone, Congress decided to organize the territory but as an “unincorporated” territory, meaning the territory belonged to the U.S. but was not part of the U.S., but paradoxically allowed Puerto Ricans to draft a constitution. Additionally, Congress had bestowed American citizenship on Puerto Ricans since 1917. This presents a perception problem because usually if Congress incorporates and grants natural citizenship it means that it is setting up the territory for eventual statehood, but in Puerto Rico’s case it did not incorporate. However, if a territory drafts a constitution and Congress approves it, then it means the territory is on its way to statehood.

This is the beginning of Puerto Rico’s uniqueness.

Reason to mention these status niceties is that the controlling constitutional process in Puerto Rico’s search for citizenship equality is hardly new, in fact it is an original part of the constitutional text. So, in one question, how can such a clear-cut process be so perceptively complicated?

That is where the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico comes in, for if the aforementioned guidelines and requirements would have been held to light Puerto Rico would have been a state half a century ago. Instead, the PPD devotes much of its time out of office trying to convince the Puerto Rican electorate that things will eventually change, but as soon as they are installed in the governor’s mansion and the legislature, their pledges to settle the status question once and for all become void of any real meaning.

For the PPD leadership, then, there is only one question to answer: What permanent, sovereign status option are they willing to support?

Do they want a continuation of the current unequal status, or do they want an “enhanced Commonwealth” through a bilateral pact with the United States? Will the soul of the pact be perpetual American citizenship (and, of course, all the accompanying rights and none of the duties of said citizenship)? Remember, one Congress cannot bind a future Congress, and the PPD’s “enhanced Commonwealth” is neither statehood, nor independence, so what the PPD is asking for is for one Congress to relinquish its constitutional (Territorial Clause) authority over the management of a territory while ignoring its expected rise to equal sovereignty and simultaneously granting American citizenship to a territory that would not be controlled by the very national government that grants it its citizenship.

Luis Muñoz Marin had it right when he likened the “Commonwealth” status to “a tree […] that cannot grow into any other tree,” but not for the reasons he thought.


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