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Development of the Commonwealth?

Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party platform calls for “the Development of the Commonwealth.” This is not a call for the economic or social development of Puerto Rico, but for the development of a new concept of a commonwealth — new in that it would be different from the current commonwealth (more accurately called territory), but not as we will see new in any real sense, since it has been rejected by the federal government a number of times before.

The first numbered point in the platform (Article 1A) is that “Puerto Ricans have a common history, idiosyncracy, culture, and language that constitute a specific nationality separate from any other nation.” The platform goes on to list the things Puerto Rico shares with the United States (having specified that history, culture, and language aren’t among those things):

  • common citizenship
  • common defense
  • common currency
  • common market

Sharing these items constitutes a shared nationhood under most definitions of the word.

Puerto Rico, under this developed commonwealth, will have general autonomy but will “delegate” powers related to all the items above, plus the postal service, Social Security, medicare, various other benefits, banks, and brokerages, to the U.S. Federal Government. Currently, the United States government has general authority over Puerto Rico under the Territory Clause but delegates local governance.

The document goes on to describe how the United States will give Puerto Rico’s government an annual block grant to take care of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico will enter into economic arrangements with other nations, the platform explains, and the United States will back these agreements.

Oh — and the United States will give Puerto Rico all of its federally owned land in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. and Puerto Rico will, under the PDP plan, establish areas of “special cooperation” such as control of drug trafficking and protection of the environment.

This idea of the commonwealth would, if the United States agreed to it, have the force of a bilateral covenant, and the United States could not — as it can now do with all agreements between the United States and Puerto Rico– change it without the consent of Puerto Rico. This is a problem, since the current Congress, which would have to change laws to accommodate this plan, cannot create rulings of this kind which are binding on future Congresses.

A report from the Congressional Research Service issued on June 25, 2013, confirms that the “enhanced commonwealth” described here has been identified by several White House Task Forces and legislative leaders on the subject as unconstitutional:

Recent White House Task Force reports and many (but not all) in Congress have argued that the enhanced commonwealth option is unconstitutional. (p.15)

[President Obama’s Puerto Rico status vote] proposal would condition such funding on certification to congressional appropriators, from the U.S. Attorney General, that “the voter education materials, plebiscite ballot, and related materials are not incompatible with the Constitution and laws and policies of the United States.” This language, which appears to be a reference to precluding the “enhanced commonwealth” concept, might be particularly important given recent legislative activity. Specifically, in December 2010, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski wrote to President Obama noting that enhanced or “new” commonwealth “is incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws of the United States in several respects.” (p.15)

Let’s continue imagining that the United States agrees to the new commonwealth scheme, in spite of its unconstitutionality.

In case there is any need for negotiation under this plan, the negotiations will be conducted by a committee consisting of three Puerto Ricans (two of whom must be commonwealthers) and three individuals appointed by the President of the United States.

Once this document is approved by the majority of the people of Puerto Rico, a Constituent Assembly will be given the job of negotiating the deal with the United States. Once the U.S. government agrees, the Resident Commissioner would be “considered a member “of Congress, but would also represent Puerto Rico “before the executive branch.”

This document was adopted by the PDP in 1998 and reaffirmed again in 2012.  Yet the concept of an “enhanced” or “new” Commonwealth has been discussed for decades, as illustrated in the 1990 political ad below:


As recently as a few weeks ago, the U.S. government’s Congressional Research Service repeated that this plan is unconstitutional and that it will not be accepted by the United States any more than previous enhanced commonwealth plans have been.

Is Puerto Rico in a position to spend large sums of money lobbying, either among its own people or with the U.S. government, for a proposal which has been identified as unconstitutional so many times and at such high levels?


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