Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Takes on Puerto Rico’s Status as a Colony

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has not taken a public position on Puerto Rico independence or statehood, but she has not shied away from criticizing the U.S. “legacy of colonization” with respect to the Caribbean island.

“The climate change-powered storm killed over 3,000 Puerto Ricans, American citizens — my own grandfather died in the aftermath — all because they were living under colonial rule, which contributed to the dire conditions and lack of recovery,” she said after Hurricane Maria.

“PR was colonized by the US & deserves a BINDING process of self-determination,” she has tweeted.

“Puerto Rican referendums have historically been non-binding,” she added further on Instagram.

“It’s almost like a poll… and it gets sent to Congress and that’s where the question of Puerto Rican political status goes to die.”

Ocasio-Cortez is not saying, “I’m waiting for them to make up their minds,” as some non-Puerto Rican national leaders do, either lacking the courage to take a principled stand or not caring enough to learn about an issue so core to Puerto Rican identity – or perhaps both.

Puerto Rico’s Status Is an Issue for All Americans

She is instead calling, as shown in the screenshot from Twitter below, for a binding process of self-determination.  By doing so, she is also saying that the current status of Puerto Rico – whether it is called a colony, a U.S. territory, a U.S. possession or simply a benign sounding “Commonwealth” – is unacceptable.

In her Instagram post, Ocasio-Cortez is also alluding to the numerous plebiscites conducted in Puerto Rico with faulty ballots that offered voters impossible options under the guise of “Commonwealth.”  These results were sent to Congress and died there.

A “Commonwealth” status option on the 1967 Puerto Rico plebiscite ballot had a different meaning from the “Commonwealth” choice on the ballot in 1993, but both meanings were affirmatively rejected by Congress and Democrat and Republican Administrations alike as deceptive and unconstitutional.

Click here to see a summary of plebiscite results from 1967, 1993 & 1998 and the different definitions of “Commonwealth” used in each.

Over the years, respected national leaders have referred to Puerto Rico “Commonwealth” options as “mythical,” “deceptive,” or, in the words of Puerto Rican born Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), “a letter to the three kings or Santa Claus.”

It hasn’t been a close call.  The “Commonwealth” option for Puerto Rico calls for Puerto Rico sovereignty in permanent union with the U.S. under a compact that the U.S. would be powerless to change.  Puerto Rico would have a seat at the United Nations and yet continue U.S. citizenship.  U.S. customs, defense and border protections would remain in force while Puerto Rico could cherry pick among the federal laws it would follow.  Meanwhile, federal funding for Medicaid, Medicare, nutrition, transportation and myriad other programs would continue unabated.

Click here to view a “Commonwealth” Party platform.

“It is unfortunate that the voters have faced unrealistic and inflated expectations of a supposed commonwealth relationship with the United States,” said Representative Don Young (R-AK) after Congress had failed to take action following the 1993 plebiscite.  Young later called “Commonwealth” a “fantasy status.”

In other words, any plebiscite vote that includes a “Commonwealth” option is a waste of time and resources.  As Ocasio-Cortez notes, these plebiscites die in Congress.

Yet taking “Commonwealth” off the ballot has not solved the problem.  In 1998, rather than facing the reality of the impossibility of “Commonwealth,” some supporters voted for a “none of the above” option.  In 2012 and 2017 “Commonwealth” supporters urged boycotts when their option was again kept off the ballot.

As recognition of the impossibility of a “Commonwealth” option has taken hold, some “Commonwealth” supporters have gravitated towards the idea of putting a new option on the next plebiscite ballot: making Puerto Rico a sovereign Freely Associated State (FAS).

Unfortunately, the FAS ballot option has been infused with the attributes of the make-believe “Commonwealth.”

In 2017, the Department of Justice (DOJ) spotted this trend on a draft plebiscite ballot and attempted to clarify the limits on Puerto Rico as a Freely Associated State.

Under the terms of a 2014 federal law that sets aside $2.5 million to pay for a plebiscite in Puerto Rico after Congress and the Justice Department ensure that ballot options offered to voters are viable, DOJ reviewed a draft Puerto Rico plebiscite ballot containing a sovereign Free Association option and rejected it.

The Department explained that “[t]he description of the ‘Free Association’ option on the draft ballot. . . may lead voters to think that this choice is an ‘enhanced Commonwealth’ option,” which DOJ noted has been “rejected as unconstitutional.”

The Justice Department was particularly forceful in rejecting the 2017 draft ballot’s Free Association option with respect to Puerto Ricans keeping U.S. citizenship.  DOJ pointed out that the Free Association ballot option promised Puerto Rican voters that American citizenship “would be subject to negotiation with the United States Government,” while the Independence option did not.

DOJ clarified that both Free Association and independence “would result in complete and unencumbered independence and both would require an assessment of a variety of issues related to citizenship.”

In other words, Puerto Ricans who care about U.S. citizenship cannot count on it under Free Association.  As with independence, there is much uncertainty and no guarantees.

Residents of the three nations in Free Association with the United States – Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia – are not  U.S. citizens.

As a result, FAS citizens have had trouble with U.S. immigration issues and getting and keeping jobs in the states.

In addition, there is no federal Medicaid funding in the FAS, and in 1996 FAS citizens living in U.S. states and territories were suddenly dropped from Medicaid coverage despite suffering from an abundance of chronic health issues believed to stem from extensive U.S. nuclear testing in the FAS in the 1940s and 1950s.

Although Puerto Rico voted in 2012 and 2017 for statehood in status plebiscites, Ocasio-Cortez does not appear to be committed to upholding those plebiscites because they were non-binding.

Leaders in Puerto Rico and in Washington are working on legislation calling for a yes/no vote on statehood. The thinking is that this straightforward vote, similar to status votes held in Alaska and Hawaii in the 1950’s, essentially includes all viable options on the ballot while minimizing the misinformation inherent in “Commonwealth” and, more recently, Free Association.  If this language is approved by the Department of Justice, Puerto Rico may finally have the binding vote it needs to move beyond its colonial status.

Revised on March 9, 2020.

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