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First Insular Law in 2017 Could Move Puerto Rico to Statehood

The president of the statehood party has promised that the first law he will sign if elected governor in 2016 will move Puerto Rico towards statehood.

Pedro Pierluisi, who got more votes in the 2012 elections than Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla (“commonwealth” party) and is far more popular than Garcia in polls since then, is the leading candidate to be Garcia’s statehood party opponent in 2016. Pierluisi is currently the territory’s representative to the Federal government — resident commissioner — with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that only permits voting in committees.

Garcia’s very low standing in the polls makes Pierluisi’s promise a serious possibility for Puerto Rico’s first law in 2017.

Two other potential statehood party candidates are Ricardo Rossello, son of former Governor Pedro Rossello (10993-2001), and Senator Thomas Rivera Schatz. They are equally strong advocates of equality for Puerto Ricans: statehood.

In explaining his pledge, Pierluisi added that “[t]he details of the bill” he would sign if elected cannot be specified now because of the possibility of another status plebiscite during the next two years. But he said that the legislation could provide for a plebiscite under the Federal authorization for a status vote enacted into law in January or it could petition the Federal government to admit Puerto Rico as a State based on the plebiscite that the Commonwealth government held along with the 2012 elections.

The resident commissioner has led 131 other members of the U.S. House and three U.S. senators in sponsoring legislation that would require a plan to transition Puerto Rico to statehood if Puerto Ricans vote for the status a second time.

In the 2012 plebiscite, Puerto Ricans rejected the current territory status by 54% and chose statehood among the alternatives by 61.2%.

Because very narrowly elected Governor Garcia and the “commonwealth” party majorities in each house of the Legislative Assembly elected along with him disputed the plebiscite and its results, President Obama proposed and Congress passed legislation providing for another vote under U.S. Justice Department auspices.

The Obama White House supported the 2012 plebiscite and hailed its results. But Obama aides were concerned that lobbying by Garcia and his allies against the plebiscite’s petition to the Federal government for a transition to statehood would lead to congressional inaction on the self-determination decision of Puerto Ricans.

A vote approved by the Federal Justice Department would be more difficult for the losers of the vote to dispute, as ‘commonweathers’ are now, than one held under Commonwealth law.

Garcia and other commonwealthers argued that the 2012 plebiscite was unfair because it termed Puerto Rico’s current political status as “territorial” and it did not include their proposal for an unprecedented “commonwealth status.”

All three branches of the Federal government have determined that Puerto Rico is subject to the broad powers of Congress provided by the U.S. Constitution’s Territory Clause to make all rules for territories.

The “commonwealth” party’s proposal for a “commonwealth status” that it wanted on the ballot is one that has been rejected by the Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional committee leaders of both national political parties for constitutional and other reasons.

Under it, Puerto Rico would be a nation but the U.S. would be permanently bound to Puerto Rico. Federal laws would apply but only to the extent that the Commonwealth government agreed. The Commonwealth government could also limit the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in Puerto Rico. The Commonwealth would additionally be empowered to enter into international agreements and organizations as if it were a truly sovereign nation. The U.S. would be permanently obligated to provide Puerto Ricans with all assistance currently given and to continue to grant U.S. citizenship based on birth in Puerto Rico. Etc.

Because the U.S. Justice Department has to approve the status proposals for the plebiscite authorized by the January Federal law, Garcia has asked his “commonwealth” party to revise the Federally-rejected definition of “commonwealth status.” Despite months of talks, party leaders are deadlocked between Garcia’s proposal for a governing arrangement that under which Puerto Rico would be subject to some Territory Clause powers but not others and a proposal that Puerto Rico become a nation in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end but with continued granting of U.S. citizenship and U.S. financial assistance at current levels.

The Federal law for the plebiscite requires that ballot options be statuses that can “resolve” the question of Puerto Rico’s future status and not conflict with the Constitution, laws, or policies of the U.S. The possible options are statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S that either nation could end but without continued granting of U.S. citizenship and U.S. financial assistance as at present.

A “commonwealth” proposal would not qualify because, as President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status has reported, Puerto Rico would be subject to Congress’ Territory Clause authority under any “commonwealth” arrangement. And as long as Puerto Rico is a territory, its people can petition for statehood or nationhood.






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