By Howard Hills
No matter how big the political and legal footprint left by Governor Rossello’s decision to step down, the march of history will not stop for long. The fiscal collapse of the “commonwealth” political and economic model as well as the natural disaster recovery program, soon will intensify rather than delay the necessity for a declaration of a federal policy on the the territory’s future status.
The Governor was a charismatic rising star on the island and among national Democratic Party moderates and progressives. He also was leader of the bipartisan local political movement seeking statehood for 3.5 million U.S. citizens in the territory.
That paired the Governor with the pro-statehood Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzalez. She is the at-large representative of a U.S. citizen electorate 5 times larger than other House members, but because Puerto Rico is not a state yet, she is denied a vote on passage of legislation.
Together the Governor and Congresswoman also were actively mobilizing bipartisan pro-statehood supporters among the 5.5 million Americans of Puerto Rican descent in the 50 states. Most in the Puerto Rican diaspora live in Florida and other large swing states. In keeping with registered voter participation rates back home on the island over 75%, Puerto Ricans in the mainland vote at a much higher rate than any other ethnic community nationwide.
The anti-statehood factions in Washington and San Juan naturally are using the scandal in San Juan as a diversion for media and public attention away from the fiscal and economic collapse of the current “commonwealth” model of territorial government. The scandal also distracts news coverage from the lack of state-like infrastructure or state standards of disaster preparation that would have mitigated 2017’s catastrophic hurricane damage and facilitated state-like recovery.
Meanwhile, the local anti-statehood party – which also opposes real sovereign and independent nationhood – sees the scandal as an opportunity to defend the status quo and forestall further talk of admission to the union or nationhood. Defenders of the status quo are chanting the mantra “political status change is dead.”
Ironically, if anything, the Governor’s alliance with Democratic Party leaders and passionate demands for statehood without further delay arguably was causing some of the very avoidance and delay he opposed. The perception that he was not being realistic made it harder for statehood supporters in both Houses of Congress to advance more traditional terms for transition from territory status.
As local regime change plays out and new leadership emerges, continuity will come from Congresswoman Gonzalez, who is very popular among Republicans in Congress. She may be able to increase bipartisan support for introduction of legislation sponsoring a final status plebiscite on terms prescribed by Congress and approved by majority vote.
Territorial status is constitutionally temporary, so pretending it is permanent is not a solution.
Howard Hills formerly served as constitutional and international law adviser on territorial status affairs in the Executive Office and the President, National Security Council and U.S. Department of State. He is author of the book, “Citizens Without A State”