How Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite Unfairly Opens the Back Door to an Unwanted Status
The latest status plebiscite in Puerto Rico will be held on Election Day (November 6, 2012). On that day, the people of the American territory will be asked to vote “yes,” or “no” on whether to keep the current territorial “Commonwealth” status. A “yes” vote would perpetuate the current unequal, colonial status; a “no” vote would reject, but would not end, the colonial “Commonwealth” status per se. To do that, the voters will have to answer a second question on the same ballot: which sovereign option do you want?—statehood, independence, or … independence!
Yes, the “independence” option appears twice. Why?
First, let us ask a different question: what is the purpose of all these plebiscites we all hear about?
The answer: to terminate a territorial status that very few in Puerto Rico believe in, and to achieve sovereignty for the people of the island. “Sovereignty,” as such, is the power of a people to make decisions about its own political future without the interference of outsiders. Sounds like “independence,” huh? Well, the American system operates under a sovereignty model we call federalism. In federalism, the people of a sovereign “state” (in this case an American state and not an independent nation-state) agrees to delegate a degree of its own sovereign powers to the federal government so that through the collective delegation of 50 sovereigns ALL members of the union can maximize their own fortunes in an equal union of different peoples—politically and economically. The states and their respective peoples retain all sovereign powers NOT delegated to the federal government, and the other states in the union are not seen as “outsiders” by each other but as partners—family!
Sovereignty for Puerto Rico, then, comes in two flavors under American and international law: full annexation through American statehood, or full disintegration through international independence.
What are other forms of sovereignty? There are no others.
There is what in international law is known as “free association,” which is created between two independent nations and which can be broken at the desire of either nation and at any time and for whatever reason. The actual treaty that creates the free association status is typically known as a Compact of Free Association. The U.S. is currently a signatory to three such agreements with the independent nations of Palau, The Federated States of Micronesia, and The Marshall Islands.
These free association treaties can last forever, but are not perpetual in-and-of-themselves. They only can last forever if the two nations that signed the Compact of Free Association remain satisfied with the association.
In Puerto Rico’s November plebiscite there is a third option written into the law as “ELA Soberano.” “ELA” is an acronym that stands for Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State) and it is the official, Spanish name of the island’s government, so combined with the word “Soberano,” it means “Sovereign Free Associated Nation-State.” “ELA” in Puerto Rico means what “Commonwealth” means to the rest of the world as it relates to American federal territorial law and not as it relates to actual states of the union that use the old term. The “Commonwealth” of Puerto Rico is not the same (legally) as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or Massachusetts, or Kentucky.
So there is the second “independence” option. Puerto Rico cannot enter into a Compact of Free Association with the United States of America unless it declares independence, and nothing could stop Puerto Rico from entering into a free association treaty with a different country, i.e. Venezuela, China, or Russia if it so desired. Some say that Puerto Rico can indeed enter into free association without declaring independence from the U.S., but that belies the fact that the very essence of free association is that it can only happen between two sovereign, independent nations. A U.S. territory cannot sign a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. because all sovereign powers reside on one side: Congress. So, the third option in Puerto Rico’s plebiscite makes the island a republic separate from the U.S. and out of the control of Congress. Why is this important?
The Americans of Puerto Rico do not want independence and they have shown as much in every plebiscite and poll in the past 114 years. To independence supporters this is just the result of mass brainwashing. To the vast majority of Puerto Ricans who love their American citizenship and their Puerto Rican identity this is just the result of democratic sanity and political shrewdness.
The danger is that this third “option” will confuse the voters. In their minds, “ELA Soberano” must be something different, or else why would it be there?
The pro-territorial “Commonwealth” Popular Democratic Party (PPD) in the island has been offering voters something “different” for the past 60-plus years. The PPD contends that neither statehood, nor independence is good enough. The party has promised something better. The leadership of the PPD wants the benefits of both statehood and independence; all the rights and benefits of American statehood and all the perquisites of international recognition—including the ability to veto federal laws that the governor of Puerto Rico sees as “inoperable” in the island and the ability to join international bodies as a nation. The federal government has rejected the proposal as incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. In other words, if Puerto Rico wants to end the current territorial status it has two—and only two—options: statehood or independence.
Once Puerto Rico becomes an independent nation—if the people of the island so choose—then the new, separate nation of Puerto Rico can work with the American government to bilaterally enact a Compact of Free Association.
The pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) currently controls the governorship and both chambers of the legislature by supermajorities. So why would a statehood supermajority write a law that distorts the statehood-versus-independence reality that is needed to end the territorial status? The NPP is calling the PPD’s 60-plus-year bluff.
Today, the PPD is internally split between two wings: the so-called Autonomistas and the Soberanistas. The Autonomistas want more … well … autonomy. They are the establishment wing, the conservative wing, and they wish to remain a territory of the U.S. under the Constitution’s Territorial Clause, but they want Congress to devolve many of its powers to the people of Puerto Rico. Congress has made it clear that Puerto Rico has all the autonomy that the federal government is willing to grant—no more!
The Soberanistas are the liberal wing of the PPD and they want sovereignty—just not under statehood. They want sovereignty and the only other options for sovereignty is independence, but they will not say that because the word “independence” is political suicide in Puerto Rico. They have come up with a more elegant way of asking for independence that does not actually use the word independence: free association or “ELA Soberano.” Very clever indeed. Independence through the back door.
Unless the statehood party supplements its desire for U.S. annexation with a robust education effort, the results of the latest plebiscite will at best be another indecisive failure in the part of a confused electorate, or at worse the ostensible rejection of statehood by two independence pluralities that would add up to an independence majority.
The same way Congress will not accept a statehood petition with less than a strong majority (55 percent plus), it will not accept an independence petition with any less. However, independence and independence in free association supporters can already be heard claiming a majority for a petition for independence if between the former and the latter there is a combined 50.1 percent vote. That would be unfair to statehood supporters.
In that case, perhaps the statehood party in charge should amend the law if not to delete the superfluous “ELA Soberano,” at minimum to balance the ballot with a fourth option: “ELA Statehood.” Make it a Statehood vs. Independence vs. Independence vs. Statehood! Why not?
Seventy-something days away from the general election and the referendum on status, and without a robust educative effort in the part of the pro-statehood NPP things could get messy. On the day after the election, the results will be fodder for all political parties willing to spin confused chaos into logical voter support, but those same results will not provide a solution to the century-old problem of democratic inequality, lack of political sovereignty and human dignity in Puerto Rico.
- Puerto Rico Statehood: Bad Business For The U.S. Or The Next Swing State? (ibtimes.com)
- Pierluisi Urges Puerto Ricans to Vote “No” in First Part of November Status Vote (juliorvarela.com)
- Univision Apologizes to Puerto Rico for Ad Slip-Up (abcnews.go.com)
- Fortuño’s Plan For English Proficiency In Puerto Rico – Analysis (eurasiareview.com)