Territory’s Current Status is “very bizarre”
Puerto Ricans should “fight hard” for statehood, Vice President Joseph Biden told White House staff in July 2012.
If they do, “we shall act” to grant “equality,” he declared.
The nation’s second highest elected official also told the group that, “I have always found Puerto Rico’s current political status as something very bizarre.”
The Orlando Sentinel made his remarks public yesterday. There are nearly one million people of Puerto Rican origin in Florida, nearly half in the center of the State, which includes the newspaper’s circulation area.
A recent poll showed that three-fifths advocate statehood for Puerto Rico and four-fifths would be proud if the territory became a State.
The Vice President made his statements in response to a young, temporary staff member from Puerto Rico who is now studying law in Orlando, Phillip Arroyo.
“Mr. Vice President, as opposed to my fellow intern colleagues present here today, I will not be able to vote for you in four months …. You see, Mr. Vice President, I am Puerto Rican; and despite Puerto Ricans possessing American citizenship by birth, and thousands of brave Puerto Rican soldiers like my father having served and even died for our nation, many dying as we speak, we are denied equal voting and representation rights under the American flag,” stated the young man.
He would conclude by asking, “Mr. Vice President, do you think we are contradicting ourselves as a nation when we preach freedom and democracy abroad in countries within the Middle East, and yet, to this very day, we maintain 3.7 million American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico under a disenfranchised political status, where they are denied the most basic fundamental rights enshrined in our U.S. Constitution?”
The room became silent.
Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote for president, and their sole representative in the U.S. Congress can speak on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives but he cannot vote. He can, however, vote in committee, but get this: If his vote is a deciding vote, it doesn’t count.
At that moment, Biden’s face became serious, yet sympathetic, as if he were about to offer a eulogy at a memorial service. After pausing for several seconds, he answered, “I must say, that is a very good question. I have always found Puerto Rico’s current political status as something very bizarre. My word of advice to you, and all Puerto Ricans, is that you continue to fight hard until you reach your goal of equality, and we shall act,” Biden stated before taking one more question and finally disappearing through a hallway surrounded by the Secret Service.
I remember that day vividly, because I was the intern who asked that question regarding Puerto Rico.
Biden also made the statements four months before Puerto Ricans were to vote on the territory’s political status options.
In the plebiscite held under Commonwealth government law, Puerto Ricans rejected the current status — unincorporated territory of the U.S. but sometimes misleadingly called “commonwealth” after the word in the formal name of the territorial government. The rejection was by a clear majority and statehood was chosen among the alternatives by 61.2%.
The July 2012 statements were not Biden’s first in favor of equality for Puerto Ricans. In the mid-1990s, he said that he favored statehood for the territory after coming to understand Puerto Rico’s situation and having earlier accepted the idea of “commonwealth status” from its leading proponent, then Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon.
He credited then Governor Pedro Rossello with fully explaining the issue in the 1990s and his conversion to be a supporter of statehood.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but under the territory’s status, the only voting representation they have in the Federal government, which makes their national laws, is a sole resident commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives who can only vote in committees to which he or she is assigned.
Additionally, Puerto Ricans and the territory can be treated differently than the States and their residents in Federal programs. They are treated less well in some major programs for healthcare, the elderly, and disabled, and low-income citizens. They are also treated differently in some tax laws.
The Obama Administration supported Puerto Rico’s plebiscite and hailed its results.
The governor very narrowly elected at the same time as the plebiscite, however, lobbied the Congress to not respond positively to the Puerto Rican petition for a transition to statehood.
The “commonwealth” party that the now governor headed had wanted its proposal for an unprecedented “commonwealth status” to be an option in the vote even though it had been rejected by the Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional leaders of both national political parties as impossible for constitutional and other reasons.
Now Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla also supported the losing current status option in the plebiscite.
Concerned that the Governor’s lobbying would frustrate the self-determination of Puerto Ricans, the Obama White House proposed legislation for another plebiscite but this time under Federal law and U.S. Department of Justice review.
The Justice Department would ensure that the options for the re-vote do not conflict with the U.S. Constitution and basic U.S. policies — as would the “commonwealth” party’s proposal.
Justice Department oversight would also make it more difficult for the party to dispute the results of the re-vote with any credibility.
Led by the Republican House of Representatives, the Congress approved the legislation just over a year ago.