Former ‘Commonwealth’ party Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila acknowledged this week that he has never met a Federal official who agrees with the party’s view of Puerto Rico’s political status and doesn’t know of anyone in Congress who agrees with its proposals to “develop ‘Commonwealth.’”
Governor from 2005 until 2009, Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government from 2001 until 2005, ‘Commonwealth’ party leader in the territory’s House of Representatives before that, and party president for years, Acevedo Vila said that the party’s “theory” that Puerto Rico has a “bilateral agreement” with the United States that can only be changed with Puerto Rico’s consent is “not defended by anyone in Washington, in the White House, or in Congress.”
The agreement is the process used by the Federal government and the territory between 1950 and ’52 that resulted in a constitution for the insular government that named the government “the Commonwealth.”
As an example of the lack of any Federal agreement to the idea that Puerto Rico’s consent is required for congressional changes to matters covered by the Federal laws related to the constitution, Acevedo referenced a 2006 conversation with then Senator Hillary Clinton. He says that she disagreed with his argument that, because of the agreement, Congress could no longer govern Puerto Rico on matters that a State of the United States would handle.
He also noted that the 2011 report of President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status “says clearly that Puerto Rico remains under the Territories Clause of the Constitution of the United States, denying the bilateral and mutual consent nature of the relationship.”
He candidly added that “even friends of the current ‘Commonwealth’ in Washington … sometimes stubbornly oppose statehood, but do not openly defend the historical tenets of” the ‘Commonwealth’ party “regarding ‘Commonwealth.’”
The U.S. Constitution’s Territory Clause gives Congress full (“plenary”) power to govern territories of the U.S. so long as it does not violate the fundamental rights of individuals under the U.S. Constitution. The party contends that the agreement on the Commonwealth constitution limited Congress’ Territory Clause power over Puerto Rico to maters not considered local in the States and to Federal policies regarding Puerto Rico in effect at the time.
Congress has enacted laws inconsistent with the Federal laws related to the Constitution and the laws have been upheld in the courts. ‘Commonwealth’ party administrations have been reluctant to challenge the laws in the courts.
Based on what he has learned, Acevedo reached the conclusion that Puerto Rico’s “current relationship” with the United States “emanates from the plenary powers of Congress over Puerto Rico.” A growing number of other party leaders have as well and have advocated nationhood with permanent U.S. benefits.
Acevedo also said that he had asked all party leaders “Who in Congress agree with our proposals to develop the Commonwealth?” without any being able to identify a single member of Congress who agreed.
The party’s proposal for Puerto Rico’s status would make the territory a nation to which the U.S. is permanently bound. U.S. laws would apply and courts would have jurisdiction but only as the Commonwealth agrees. The Commonwealth would be able to enter into international trade and other agreements and organizations. The U.S. would be obligated to financially subsidize the Commonwealth as well as continue to grant U.S. citizenship, all current assistance to individuals, and free entry to any goods shipped from Puerto Rico.
The proposal was developed under Acevedo’s leadership in 1998.
Recently, current ‘Commonwealth’ party Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla — who first came to prominence as Acevedo’s Secretary of Consumer Affairs — called for a new “Commonwealth” proposal. But Garcia Padilla clings to the party’s traditional view of Puerto Rico’s current status and outlined a very different vision of “Commonwealth” in the future than Acevedo’s. It only involves changing Federal laws related to economic issues as the laws affect Puerto Rico in addition to his different view of Puerto Rico’s current status.
Like Acevedo, Garcia this week admitted that Puerto Rico is subject to Congress’ Territory Clause power but, unlike Acevedo, he contradictorily asserted that the territory is not subject to Congress’ plenary powers under the Clause.
The Clause’s powers are not broken down between plenary (full) powers and non-plenary (limited) powers. Garcia appeared to mean that the Federal laws regarding the territorial constitution have limited Congress’ powers under the Clause to exclude matters that a State government would handle.
Garcia’s apparent assertion that Congress can no longer govern Puerto Rico on matters handled by the Commonwealth without the insular government’s consent is precisely the limitation that Acevedo said is “not defended by anyone in … the White House, or in Congress.”
Acevedo called for national sovereignty for Puerto Rico “which, by agreement and covenant, would waive part of its powers to be exercised by the United States.” He argued “that it is time for” ‘commonwealthers’ to call for “an association outside the Territories Clause” of the U.S. Constitution “in a change of status.”
Despite Acevedo’s call for nationhood for the territory, he proposed a tremendous amount of U.S. financial assistance for Puerto Rico. In return for the Puerto Rico agreeing that the U.S. would only have to give it the current level of assistance to the Commonwealth, the U.S. would also take over Puerto Rico’s existing debts. The debts primarily consist of $73 billion in bonds – more than any U.S. State other than California and New York.
Garcia’s Commonwealth economic expectations from the U.S. are no more realistic.
- Puerto Rico would be funded equally with the States in all Federal social programs. This would provide about $8 billion a year in additional assistance.
- Income that companies in the States claim from manufacturing in Puerto Rico would be exempted from Federal taxation. Congress, on a bipartisan basis, eliminated a similar tax exemption as of 2006 and Federal officials have rejected five proposals under five governors of Puerto Rico — including Garcia — for similar benefits.
- Duties and/or quotas would be imposed on foreign agricultural products imported into Puerto Rico — contrary to U.S. international trade agreements.
- Puerto Rico would be exempted from laws requiring that ocean shipping between U.S. ports be on vessels that are U.S. (including Puerto Rican) built, owned, flagged, and crewed. The Obama and Clinton Administrations rejected this proposal, as have congressional leaders of both parties.
- Puerto Rico would determine international airline routes involving its airports – contrary to U.S. law.
All of these proposals have been made in the past, some in “Commonwealth status” proposals, and all have been rejected by Federal officials of both national political parties.
Federal officials have rejected “Commonwealth” proposals in every decade since the agreement on the Commonwealth constitution in 1952.
The ‘Commonwealth’ party is deeply divided between the different visions of “Commonwealth” that Garcia and Acevedo represent.
Garcia has called for the differences to be reconciled because he has called for a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status under a Federal law enacted in January.
The law provides for a Puerto Rican plebiscite on options that can resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s status and do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S. The U.S. Justice Department would make these determinations about plebiscite options proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission, which has representatives of all election options.
The possible options for the plebiscite are statehood and nationhood, either fully independent from the U.S. or in an association with it that either nation could end.
Garcia’s proposal would not qualify as a plebiscite option. It could not resolve Puerto Rico’s status issue because Puerto Ricans would still be able to petition for statehood or nationhood. It conflicts with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
Acevedo’s proposal and those of other nationalists in the ‘Commonwealth’ party would also not qualify because of conflicts with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
The Federal government authorized the plebiscite because Garcia and other commonwealthers very narrowly elected to control Puerto Rico’s government in 2012 reject the results of a plebiscite held at the same time under Commonwealth law. A clear majority of the vote was against Puerto Rico’s current status — despite Garcia’s support — and 61.2% voted for U.S. statehood among the possible alternatives.