Garcia Padilla and “Commonwealth as we know it”

Puerto Rican Governor-Elect Alejandro Garcia Padilla has written a letter to President Obama discounting the results of Puerto Rico’s recent plebiscite in which 54% of the voters answered “no” when asked whether “Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status,” and over 60% of the voters selected statehood as their preferred status option.

The reasons given by the governor-elect as to why he rejects the plebiscite vote are worth looking into.

First, Garcia Padilla wrote that the plebiscite ballot was defective because it “did not include an alternative Commonwealth as we know it.”  Unfortunately, the “alternative Commonwealth” that Mr. Garcia Padilla and others “know” is not one that U.S. officials know.  As we have frequently noted in the Puerto Rico Report, key federal officials have said time and time again that this alternative “Commonwealth” option is simply not possible.  The group of credible officials who have rejected an “alternative Commonwealth” is as broad as it is deep, and includes – but is not limited to – the Obama administration, the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, the Clinton administration, leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, and the nonpartisan and authoritative Congressional Research Service.

As recently as last year, President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status examined this “alternative Commonwealth” anew and ultimately agreed with all other Federal authorities that “[u]nder the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”   The Task Force also concluded that the fundamental premise of an alternative “Commonwealth” — that the arrangement could limit the Federal government’s broad powers to govern the territory and that Puerto Rico could change the arrangement unilaterally — “remains constitutionally problematic.”

In short, there is no “alternative Commonwealth.”  No legal structure can enable Puerto Rico to enter into international agreements that require national sovereignty as long as the island remains a territory, as “Commonwealth” advocates have proposed.  No legal arrangement can guarantee future U.S. funding or citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico.  “Commonwealth” can only be what it is today – a territory of the United States, with limits as specified under the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Second, Mr. Garcia Padilla’s argument that the “combined vote of Commonwealth supporters defeated statehood” is an inaccurate portrayal of the ballot definitions. Votes for Sovereign Free Associated State in question number two cannot be combined with votes for the current territory status in question number one.  Being a sovereign nation is simply not the same thing as being a territory under the control of the U.S. Congress.

In closing, Mr. Garcia Padilla correctly notes that the political status of Puerto Rico is related to the island’s fragile economy.  He says that the situation must be addressed but he does not say how, and this missing information is critical.

President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status concluded “the long-term-economic well-being of Puerto Rico would be dramatically improved by an early decision on the status question.” The territory’s economy has primarily stagnated since the 1970s.  Independent economists have concluded that the current territorial “Commonwealth” economic model stopped benefitting Puerto Rico long ago.  This is a key reason that the Mr. Garcia Padilla’s Popular Democratic Party (PDP) seeks greater powers for Puerto Rico under an “alternative Commonwealth” proposal.  Powers, unfortunately, that federal officials have universally labeled as impossible.

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