The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has released a new report about the upcoming plebiscite vote in preparation for questions Members of Congress are likely to have as Election Day draws near. The CRS is the research arm of Congress, and the release of this particular report indicates that plebiscite results will be considered by Members of Congress and their staffs in the weeks and months ahead.
This is important because, ultimately, Congress has complete control over Puerto Rico as long as it remains a territory. As the CRS report notes, “[t]he Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress ‘Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.’”
This is even true with respect to Puerto Rico’s proud local authority, as it was Congress that granted this freedom in the first place. As the CRS report explains, “Congress recognized island authority over matters of internal governance in 1950 through the Federal Relations Act (FRA) and when it approved the island’s Constitution in 1952.” (Emphasis added.) What Congress has the authority to grant, Congress has the authority to take away. Even if Congress is not likely to act on this power in the foreseeable future, the control of even Puerto Rico’s local affairs ultimately resides with the U.S. Congress, not Puerto Rico.
This sounds harsh. In 2012, as the United States fights wars abroad in the interest of advancing democracy, it is disconcerting to realize that there are almost four million U.S. citizens who do not fully share in the American democratic process and have equal rights in their own country.
The unfortunate truth is that Puerto Rico has never achieved any goal that faced opposition by Congress. Puerto Rican Olympic teams and beauty pageant nominees have all been acquiesced to by Congress. Congress never fought these preferences.
Other attempts to by Puerto Rico to control its destiny have fallen flat when rejected by federal authorities. When, for example, the “pro-commonwealth” or Popular Democratic Party (PDP) sought to engage in international diplomacy with its Caribbean neighbors, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stopped these efforts by sending memoranda to foreign consulates clarifying that, “the U.S. federal government is responsible for Puerto Rico’s foreign affairs.”
Vieques is another powerful example. First, it is quite possible – even likely – that the problematic Navy bombing range in Vieques never would have been built in 1941 if Puerto Rico had proportionate representation and corresponding decision-making authority in Congress over its own land. Even when there was near universal agreement in Puerto Rico to remove the bombing range, Puerto Rico was powerless to do so. It was a federal government decision that closed it down.
Even today, Caribbean Business is reporting that the U.S. government has proposed fencing off the 400-acre site as a nature reserve without clearing debris from years of detonating out-of-date munitions. This is the legacy of a bombing range that would not have been built if Puerto Rico had been a state. As former Governor Pedro Rosello testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee in 1999:
“Never again shall we tolerate abuse of a magnitude and scope the likes of which no community in any of the fifty states would ever be asked to tolerate. Never again shall we tolerate such abuse: not for sixty years, and not for sixty months, or sixty hours, or sixty minutes.”
If Puerto Ricans vote to change their status, Congress will have the final word on this decision, and they are preparing for it. But if Puerto Ricans do not vote to change their status, Congress will have the final word on every decision. As history proves, that’s what being a territory is all about.