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‘Commonwealth’ Party’s Leader on Status: Puerto Rico Will Be a State if Puerto Ricans Vote for It Again

Puerto Rico will become a State if Puerto Ricans vote for the status again, the main ideologue of the ‘Commonwealth’ party worried Thursday night.

Former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon explained that statehood will be Puerto Rico’s future if a ‘Commonwealth’ proposal that Federal officials have said is impossible is not on the ballot of a status plebiscite under a Federal law enacted in January.

Hernandez Colon, who has dominated the ‘Commonwealth’ party for most of the past 45 years, also predicted that Puerto Ricans will vote for statehood again if the statehood party wins the 2016 elections, and the Government of Puerto Rico now controlled by his party has not held a status plebiscite under the law beforehand.

His assertions contradicted the longtime ‘Commonwealth’ party argument that the U.S. would not make Puerto Rico a State as well as the principle that Puerto Rico should have the status that a majority of its people want from among the possible options.

The Federal law provides for a plebiscite on options that: would resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status; do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.; and are agreed to by the U.S. Justice Department.

The known possible options are statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.

Puerto Rico’s current status, sometimes also called “Commonwealth” after a word in the formal name of the insular government, cannot be an option because it cannot resolve the issue. Puerto Ricans will have the right to petition for statehood or nationhood as long as Puerto Rico remains a territory that has not been made a part of the U.S.

Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla recently proposed holding the plebiscite but also proposed a ‘new’ definition of “Commonwealth status” for the vote. Hernandez Colon and his son Jose Hernandez Mayoral, the party’s Federal affairs representative, are the major forces behind the proposal.

The definition is very similar to the party’s definition for a plebiscite under local law in 1993 but it is different from the party’s current definition of “Commonwealth” adopted for a plebiscite under local law in 1998.

Federal officials of both national parties have uniformly rejected both proposals as impossible for constitutional and other reasons.

Hernandez Colon observed, however, that it would be difficult for his party to have the plebiscite held. Advocates of a “Sovereign Commonwealth,” a development of the party’s current “Commonwealth” proposal, do not agree with his “autonomist” proposal.

He also expects a battle with the U.S. Justice Department over the Federal position that Puerto Rico will remain subject to Congress’ full power to govern territories under any “Commonwealth” arrangement, as articulated by President Obama’s Puerto Rico Status Task Force.

“We could fight” the Obama Administration determination “in court, but it could take longer than two years,” the former governor explained.

He argued that “the current commonwealth status” is not subject to Congress’ full territory governing power and can be “improved” contrary to the findings of the administrations of both Presidents Bush and the Clinton Administration as well as the Obama Administration.

Recognizing that the plebiscite under Federal law may be held after the statehood party wins the 2016 elections, Hernandez Colon fretted that the statehood party would not put “the improved commonwealth” on a plebiscite ballot because Federal officials have determined that the “Commonwealth” proposal cannot be implemented.

Hernandez Colon also contended that, if Puerto Ricans vote for statehood again, “the first step” Congress will take towards making Puerto Rico a State “will be to make Puerto Rico an incorporated territory.”

He asserted that Puerto Rico will have less internal control as an incorporated vs. unincorporated territory — a contention that has no basis in law because Congress has already let Puerto Rico exercise the authority of a State on local matters. It  suggests, however, that he believes that the Commonwealth government has greater power than a State.

Hernandez Colon’s proposed new “Commonwealth status” definition adopted by Governor Garcia asserts that Congress’ constitutional power to govern Puerto Rico has been limited. It also claims that the new “Commonwealth” will bring: equal funding with the States in all Federal social programs; Federal tax exemption for income that companies in the States receive from Puerto Rico; exemption from the Federal laws requiring that ocean shipping between U.S. ports be on U.S. built, owned, flagged and crewed vessels; trade protection for Puerto Rican agricultural products; and Puerto Rican determination of international airline route landings.

The party’s current definition of “Commonwealth status” calls for the U.S. to be permanently bound to a nation of Puerto Rico in an arrangement under which Federal laws and court jurisdiction would apply to the extent that the Commonwealth agrees and Puerto Rico would be able to enter into international agreements and organizations that require nationhood. The U.S. would also be required to continue to grant U.S. citizenship, current benefits to individuals, and free entry to goods shipped from Puerto Rico as well as grant a new subsidy.

The Obama White House proposed, and Congress approved, the Federal plebiscite law because Gov. Garcia and the ‘Commonwealth’ party majorities of both houses of the Legislative Assembly have refused to accept a plebiscite held under local law along with their elections. The vote rejected the current territory status option supported by Garcia and was Puerto Ricans’ first vote for statehood as the alternative.

The Obama White House supported the plebiscite and hailed its results. But officials recognized that lobbying by Garcia could prevent other congressional action on the people of Puerto Rico’s self-determination decision.

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