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Three-Way Fight: Statehood vs. Independence vs. … Independence?

In Citizenship Equality, Commentary and Analysis, Enemies of Equality, Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Independence, Puerto Rico Statehood, Self-Determination, Soberanistas vs. Autonomistas, The Big Lie: The PPD's "Commonwealth" on August 26, 2012 at 4:00 PM
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.

The Status: 2011

In Enemies of Equality, The Big Lie: The PPD's "Commonwealth", Self-Determination, Commentary and Analysis, Citizenship Equality, Puerto Rico Democracy Act, Puerto Rico, Tennessee Plan, H.R. 2499 on October 21, 2010 at 12:31 AM

H.R. 2499’s Failure in Congress and Its Success in Puerto Rico

Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) has confirmed to El Nuevo Dia that once the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico Status (Task Force) releases its report at the end of December, the territory’s New Progressive Party (PNP), pro-statehood government will begin the necessary work to carry out a local (not congressionally sanctioned) plebiscite, which means a vote could happen by mid-2011. During the roundtable with various Spanish-speaking newspapers and news agencies, Res. Comm. Pierluisi expressed his support for the White House’s work on the Puerto Rico status, although the administration postponed to December the release of the report, which was due in October. The territory’s sole (non-voting) representative also expressed his contentment with the administration’s reestablishment of its commitment to the status issue.

Puerto Rico's governor-elect Luis Fortuño, left, and Resident Commissioner-elect Pedro Pierluisi, elected nonvoting delegate to U.S. Congress, celebrate during the victory rally in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Puerto Rico’s representative in Washington specifically said that “Once the White House recognizes the status options available to [Puerto Rico], we will be ready to carry out the next plebiscite in the island.”

A day before the Resident Commissioner’s remarks, President Obama (during his own press conference) restated his administration’s commitment to ending the citizenship inequality that exists in Puerto Rico. Although the President has also said that his principal focus is on the status of the territory, the Task Force has been charged with immediate economic development of the island—regardless of whether the status gets resolved or not.

The comments by Res. Comm. Pierluisi and the President are the latest in the status debate in the “H.R. 2499 Era.” The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009/10 (H.R. 2499) began as the most bipartisan effort on Puerto Rico’s status, only to see its Republican (and some Democratic) support in the House erode in the hours before the final vote in the lower house. It passed the House with a comfortable margin, but only after it came really close (four votes close) to capitulating to a motion to recommit, which would have sent it back to committee never to be seen again.

A year after having been introduced in the House, H.R. 2499 was handed to the Senate for consideration, where it was received by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with the usual senatorial disdain; the bill died before it arrived in the upper house—or at least once it entered the chamber, who knows? What we do know is that senators could not find “consensus” on the measure to move it out of committee and into the full senate.

Although Res. Comm. Pierluisi’s bill did not make to the President’s desk, the work that the House Committee on Natural Resources and many other devoted members of the chamber did on behalf of H.R. 2499’s passage cannot be understated. As such, the Resident Commissioner must walk a fine line between encouraging his New Progressive Party about a locally sanctioned status plebiscite, and keeping with the letter of the bill his peers did report out of the House (post-Foxx Amendment H.R. 2499). The reason is that the Resident Commissioner still has two more years in office because he is the only member with a four-year term, and he will need friends when he goes back.

This is a tough spot in which to be for Res. Comm. Pierluisi. After all, H.R. 2499 in its original form was a (just) stroke of genius. As introduced, the bill did three important things in the history of the “status”: 1) it separated the permanent, sovereign options (i.e. independence and statehood) from the non-permanent, territorial option of “Commonwealth”; 2) because of (1), it allowed the “Commonwealth” a chance to vie for continued existence through a democratic majority vote; and 3) because of (2), it placed an eight-year cycle on the “Commonwealth” status so that voters in Puerto Rico could only extend the status quo temporarily (because the territorial status cannot be permanent).

That was on May 19, 2009; a year later, however, things had changed—H.R. 2499 had changed. Although the bill surmounted many frivolous obstacles and underwent a few insignificant changes (e.g. Congress mandated bilingual ballots and put the financial burden of the plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s government), it lost its originality on the status question (and its likely solution) when the House adopted the Foxx Amendment. The effect of the amending motion upon the bill, arguably, might have made it viable and likely to succeed out of the House, but it turned it into a useless bill fit for recommittal—and even withdrawal in conspicuous protest.

Post-Foxx Amendment, H.R. 2499 became an instrument of perpetual obstruction because it now asked the Americans of Puerto Rico to first vote on whether they wanted to change the current (“Commonwealth”) territorial status, and then included the status quo in the second round of voting—you know, the round that was supposed to give Puerto Ricans a permanent solution. All that, with the added bonus of legitimizing the “Commonwealth” status once again as a possible permanent option.

Cynicism was not the only reason for the drastic change; instead, it was a combination of cynical congressional paternalism, ignorant political calculus, and ill-willed irrational policymaking at their best.

The prevailing argument against H.R. 2499 was that it was not “fair” because it separated the “Commonwealth” option from the statehood and independence options in a supposed attempt to “stack the deck” in favor of statehood. While it is true that under the original terms of H.R. 2499 Puerto Rico would have most likely been on track to statehood than to independence, the essential aspects of the status matter need not be ignored once that “conclusion” has been reach.

For example, whether statehood (or independence for that matter) “appears” like the likely “winner” upon the letter of the bill, we need not forget that the “status problem” is the “Commonwealth” status, and that any permanent option’s winning is what victory in the status problem looks like. Is that not what Congress, the President, all parties in Puerto Rico, the United Nations, Castro and Chavez all want? Why, then, should Congress mix two distinct status classes (i.e. permanent non-territorial and non-permanent territorial) in any plebiscite? A minority of Puerto Ricans cannot be allowed to hold the status issue hostage to progress. Concurrently, there should have been no problem with granting Puerto Rico’s “Commonwealth” supporters an opportunity to extend temporarily the territorial status if (and only if) they could garner a simple majority. Supporters of equality for the four million American citizens of Puerto Rico detest the idea of extending the territorial status any further, but given the fact that the only way that could happen was through a majority vote, we were satisfied that this was “the right way.”

H.R. 2499 in its original form might have failed in Congress, but the Puerto Rican electorate approved it long before that occurred. In fact, Governor Luis Fortuño and Res. Comm. Pierluisi campaigned on the plan; they won by the largest margin in Puerto Rico politics. Their slogan: “Every vote for the New Progressive Party is a vote for Statehood.”

Now, the Americans of Puerto Rico must accept the consequences of their stalled efforts for self-determination. A Congress that cannot pass a bill that will certify the permanent status options for Puerto Rico that most everybody understands are available (i.e. statehood and independence); a White House that insists on promoting territorial economic development to the dual detriment of equality and—ironically—true (democratic) economic development; an ever-growing series of political parties vying for their own (detached from constitutional reality) versions of a permanent status; and the vast majority of Americans in the states not having a clue as to what all of this means—all place the legislature of Puerto Rico in the unenviable position to take the lead in solving this problem, finally.

As such, the territory’s legislative chambers should implement their own recipe for status success; one bolder than the original Pierluisi bill. H.R. 2499 may not have had “consensus,” but it enjoyed an abundance of equity and moral fortitude. If the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) did not like H.R. 2499, it should like the legislature’s new plan even less. The plebiscite that will ultimately be carried out in Puerto Rico should not look like H.R. 2499. It ought to take out any concessions made to the enemies of equality, mainly the promotion and promulgation of the “Commonwealth” status as a viable permanent option.

Any plebiscite in which the people of Puerto Rico are asked to vote for legitimate, permanent, sovereign options should (and will) be welcomed by all sides; it just has to be done! H.R. 2499’s failure in Congress and the ostensibly weak-on-substance report expected from the Obama Administration’s Task Force should not deter supporters of self-determination in the Puerto Rico legislature from instituting what they think will, once and for all, rid Puerto Rico of its colonial history and pseudo-democratic “Commonwealth” status.

 

 

 

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