The ‘commonwealth’ party’s Governing Board could not reach agreement Saturday on a new proposal for the territory’s status between two main ideas that Federal officials have previously rejected.
A “commonwealth” proposal is needed for a plebiscite provided for by a Federal law enacted in January that Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla wants to hold, reportedly shortly before an island-wide primary in the statehood party.
The meeting, held after a postponement intended to give Gov. Garcia time to obtain enough votes to settle on his proposal, did agree on one point for the definition: Individuals would have to be able to obtain U.S. citizenship based on birth in Puerto Rico.
This is currently the case under Federal law but not under the U.S. Constitution itself, as it is in: the States; territories that have been made a full and permanent part of the U.S.; and the district that serves as the headquarters of the Federal government.
It was not clear whether the Board was referring to a continuation of the Federal law or to an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that the party has made in the past but that the Federal government denies.
Two other agreements were reached. Both concern how a new status proposal could be determined.
- A committee of four former party presidents would try to draft the proposal. The committee includes: the author of Gov. Garcia’s “autonomist” proposal, which is similar to the definition the party developed for a 1993 plebiscite under local law, Former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon; the leader under whom the current proposal was drafted for a 1998 plebiscite under local law and a leader of the “sovereigntist” faction that wants a similar proposal, ex-Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila; Former Senate President Miguel Hernandez Agosto, who advocated a national sovereignty proposal in the 1998 plebiscite; and Ex-San Juan Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Hector Luis Acevedo, who tried to obtain Federal acceptance of the 1993 plebiscite definition.
- The other agreement was that a new proposal would have to be adopted by the party’s General Council or its General Assembly. There are some 600 members of the Council and 5,000 members of the Assembly. The Board, which first adopted the current proposal, has 30 members.
Under Gov. Garcia’s proposal, which reportedly had the support of 13 of 22 Board members at the meeting:
- Matters that State governments handle and taxation of Puerto Ricans would be exempted (by law) from Congress’ Territory Clause power to govern in Puerto Rico.
- Puerto Rico would be funded equally with the States in all Federal social programs.
- Income that companies in the States claim from manufacturing in Puerto Rico would be exempted from Federal taxation.
- Trade law would protect Puerto Rican agricultural products from foreign competition.
- Foreign built, owned, flagged, and crewed ships would be able to carry cargo between Puerto Rico and the States.
- The Commonwealth government’s approval would be needed for international airline routes that involve stops in Puerto Rico.
Federal officials of both national political parties have turned down similar proposals for constitutional as well as policy reasons.
Federal officials of both national parties have also rejected the party’s current definition as impossible for constitutional and other reasons. The proposal, which had the support of nine of 22 Board members, calls for:
- Puerto Rico to be a nation but in a permanent association with the U.S.
- Puerto Rico to be able to limit the application of Federal laws and court jurisdiction.
- Puerto Rico to be able to enter into international agreements and organizations that require nationhood.
- The U.S. to provide a new subsidy for the Commonwealth government.
- The U.S. to give up ownership of most Federal property in the territory.
- The U.S. to continue to provide all program benefits to individuals, citizenship, and free entry to goods shipped from Puerto Rico.
- Puerto Rico’s consent to be required for changes in the arrangement.
One of Acevedo Vila’s ideas for developing the proposal further would have the U.S. assume the Commonwealth’s debt, which is about $73 billion.
Under the Federal plebiscite law, the U.S. Justice Department has to agree that the plebiscite options would finally resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status and do not conflict with the Constitution or existing laws and policies of the U.S.
Neither of the proposals would meet these tests.
Garcia has called for the Legislative Assembly to act on a plebiscite law during its current session. Senate President Eduardo Bhatia and House Speaker Jaime Perello, however, have not been planning for it.
Puerto Rico held a plebiscite under local law along with the 2012 elections. It defeated Puerto Rico’s current territory status, for which Garcia urged support, by 54%. It chose statehood among the possible alternatives by 61.2%
Nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end — which is generally called “free association” but was called “Sovereign Commonwealth” for the plebiscite and was advocated by Acevedo Vila and others in the “sovereigntist” wing of the party — obtained 33.3%. Independence was selected by 4.5% of the vote.
The Federal plebiscite law was enacted because Garcia and the ‘commonwealth’ party members who were also elected in the 2012 elections dispute the Commonwealth’s plebiscite.
The Obama White House, which had supported the 2012 plebiscite and hailed its results, was concerned that lobbying by the Governor would cause Congress to not take more positive action on the people of Puerto Rico’s self-determination decision.
A plebiscite under Federal law would be more difficult for the ‘commonwealth’ party to argue against with any credibility.