How Puerto Rico’s Territorial Status Has Gotten out of Congressional Control and What It Means for Citizenship Equality
The Americans of Puerto Rico still wait for a chance to vote between statehood and independence, Congress wants nothing to do with legislating on the matter until petition, the U.S. House votes against and for the “Commonwealth” status quo in the same bill, the U.S. Senate is simply not interested and says nothing, the White House wants to focus on economic development of the territory while ignoring the biggest (democratic and economic) stimulus offered by certainty and equality, the Americans in the states are misinformed about the most elemental points of the status question, and the political parties of the island territory continue to clamor for everything under the status sun—it is official: Puerto Rico’s status is out of control!
To be sure, Puerto Rico’s status per se (i.e. constitutionally) has not changed. In 1898, Puerto Rico was a “colony,” by 1917 it was a “territory,” in 1952 it became a “Commonwealth,” and in 1998, when Puerto Ricans revoked the 1952 mandate for “Commonwealth” status, Puerto Rico returned to its colonial status. Moreover, through that century the only status alternative that continues to grow is statehood.
For all that can be said about Puerto Rico’s status, one has been a constant: the enemies of equality are relentless in their obstructionism. So much so that the U.S. Congress (with its limited attention span) has punted again on the status question and the unequal citizenship that results from it. Congress has no other option. It hides under the constitutional principle that one Congress cannot bind another Congress (other than through constitutional amendment) to deny a law that unequivocally states Puerto Rico’s sovereign status options (outside the Territorial Clause powers), which the readers of La Chuleta Congelá know are independence or statehood. Their defense is to continue to say that Puerto Rico already has “authority” to call forth a referendum on the matter.
When Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) offered her amendment to the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009/10 (H.R. 2499) ordering that Puerto Ricans be offered the “Commonwealth” status quo after (presumably) having voted against it in the first round of voting, supporters of self-determination knew they were not dealing with a reasonable adversary. Once a reasonable compromise, Puerto Rico’s (constitutionally temporary) territorial transition has morphed over the past six decades (both at the national and local level) into a sort of permanent thought experiment on political organization in which all “scientists” are offering their unique projections.
In Puerto Rico, there are now five political parties. One, for all purposes, remains irrelevant to solving Puerto Rico’s status ills; the PPP, Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico, is a policy-only party, not a status-and-policy party, and enjoysmarginal support among voters in Puerto Rico. The New Progressive Party (PNP) advocates for statehood, and the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) does so for independence; these are the only two constitutional options available to territories. The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) advocates for the “Commonwealth” status quo and now finds itself divided from within. The Movement for a Sovereign Union (MUS), will undoubtedly draw most of its support from members of the PPD who do not want to continue with the “Commonwealth” status and who want something more akin to Free-Association, which is independence with a treaty of association with the U.S.
On its face, the MUS appears to (and does) hurt the PPD the most because it threatens to decimate its ranks, but there are direct consequences for the supporters of statehood because—as far off as a plebiscite victory might be because the Americans of Puerto Rico do not want to lose their American citizenship—the MUS can have the same effect that the PPD has had on the ballot for the past 60-year period in the island.
The PPD depends heavily on the number of its ranks to “prove” to everybody else that it is a “legitimate” option. Thus, if the MUS achieves enough support for its status option of, basically, Free-Association, then it can vie for control of certain legislative spots in 2012. All that will happen with the hopes of appearing on any future plebiscite on status in Puerto Rico.
Those developments could be harmful to self-determination for the Americans of Puerto Rico if there is not a concerted effort to keep the status plebiscite as a two-option plebiscite. Whether it is the PPD on the ballot as an equal and permanent status option (which it cannot be), or any other (third) status option, the results will be the same: the current “Commonwealth” status will prevail by default. Coupled with the fact that Congress, once again, has refused to intervene and rule on the matter, the prospects of more territorialism by default ought to be rejected and fought against.
The idea of statehood—its core philosophy, its definition of the future, its constitutionality, its promise—rests on fact. Territories are not perpetual. Their sub-constitutional order ends the minute the people of said territory vote in a democratic plebiscite for an option that is equal in law, balanced in civil burden, and absolutely clear in democratic representation.
The Americans of the territory want to keep their American citizenship, and statehood is the only non-territorial option that will give them equality in citizenship and secure it in perpetuity. No other party in the island territory can affirm as much. With American citizenship in mind, the push for self-determination, which hereto has been the means for the statehood end, must hence become the end to the statehood means. In other words, instead of pushing the idea of self-determination, which has been accepted universally, let us now push for statehood. Under a statehood mentality, we need not think of a political party made up of individuals who cannot make up their minds vis-à-vis the status issue because even those voters have made up their minds that their American citizenship will not be compromised.
Self-determination for Puerto Rico is far from complete, but the fact that all parties involved (and of consequence) have thus far admitted that Puerto Rico can become an independent republic or a state of the union leaves supporters of statehood free to carry out the necessary policies. The principal policy of statehood-centered attack on the enemies of equality must be the approval of a two-option plebiscite: statehood versus independence. The independence option would cover all such forms of the status; thus, “free-association” would be covered under the independence definition because the notion of free-association does not change the constitutional reality that Puerto Rico would be a nation of Puerto Rican (not American) citizenship.
Let the plebiscite be about what we all know it is about: citizenship!
A statehood-versus-independence plebiscite will cut through the status bickering, and the endless posturing by the PPD and PIP about Puerto Rican “nationhood.” Let us put the measure on the ballot as a matter of citizenship and let them vote for their preference. Be it in the PIP, or the PPD, or the MUS, or the PPP, they all have their preference of citizenship. Those of the PNP have unequivocally stated their preference, now the rest must be pushed to make theirs known.