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George H.W. Bush’s Legacy to Puerto Rico

By Howard Hills

As a twice successful candidate for Governor of California, Ronald Reagan worked hard for and earned support from some of that state’s important Latino business leaders and voters of Hispanic descent.  In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Regan hoped to win the Republican primary vote in Puerto Rico as part of a national strategy targeting both Republicans and “Reagan Democrats” in the Hispanic community.

Reagan saw his affinity with many Latinos in California as an advantage in Puerto Rico and other Latino strongholds over 1980 GOP primary rival, former Congressman, CIA Director, Republican Party Chairman, and Ambassador to China, George H.W. Bush.  But the Ivy League yankee Bush had made his fortune and succeeded in retail politics down in Texas, and knew a thing or two himself about the Latino vote and grass roots community outreach.

Bush went down to Puerto Rico and spent time on the streets and in the workplaces and homes of both business and political leaders, as well as personal friends.  Bush proved himself more than relatable enough to defeat Governor Reagan in the 1980 GOP primary.  With a larger population of U.S. citizens than 20 states, Puerto Rico’s delegate pool was larger than many state delegations to the GOP nominating convention!

Thus, even though Puerto Rico was not a state participating in the general election of 1980, Bush’s intrepid campaign and victory in Puerto Rico appealed to Reagan’s combined populism and pragmatism.  That became an important and perhaps even deciding factor in Reagan’s invitation for Bush to join the ticket as Reagan’s running mate in 1980, and again in 1984.

The rest is, as they say, history.  But George H.W. Bush was like a GOP elephant when it came to remembering what Americans of Puerto Rican descent did for the Reagan ticket in 1980 and 1984. They came through for him in even greater measure nationally as well as locally when he ran for President himself in 1988.

President Bush’s Loyalty and Pro-Statehood Leadership

President Bush’s legacy of political loyalty and leadership on Puerto Rico policy issues as President was well documented in the Puerto Rico Report as the nation and the island territory mourned his passing. That included not only his historic statement of official and personal support for Puerto Rico statehood based on the territorial policy plank of the GOP Platform, it also included the historic 1992 “Bush Memo” making state-like treatment of Puerto Rico and federally recognized periodic self-determination on status the official policy of the Executive Branch.

The 1992 Bush Memo also constituted Executive Branch repudiation of federal policy toward Puerto Rico based on “autonomy without accountability.”   The inability of Congress to approve measures for state-like treatment of Puerto Rico, mechanisms for periodic federally recognized self-determination, and restored fiscal accountability parallel to the Bush Memo ultimately led to Puerto Rico’s 2015 insolvency.

Praising Bush’s Puerto Rico record does not detract from the accomplishments of the Clinton administration, including ending unsustainable mainland corporation tax haven schemes in Puerto Rico and the historic creation of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status in its last days.  Thus, it is not historic revisionism but rather reflection on the ironies of history to speculate that Bush in a second term might well have transmitted to Congress legislation making possible self-determination leading to admission of the 51st state.

As Ex-President G.H.W.B. Stays the Course for Puerto Rico

The depth of former President Bush’s commitment to self-determination and statehood if chosen by his fellow citizens in the territory was revealed in 2007, when he authored a foreword to a book on territorial self-determination and status resolution written by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.  A former two-term Governor of Pennsylvania, Thornburgh headed the U.S. Department of Justice under both Reagan and Bush, and his historic testimony in Congress on Puerto Rico status resolution is cited in the Puerto Rico Report tribute to Bush’s legacy in Puerto Rico noted above.

Thornburgh’s 2007 book on federal law and policy in Puerto Rico and the other four current U.S. territories was published by one of the most respected and prestigious bipartisan think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  When former President Bush (41) learned of the Thornburgh book project, he volunteered to write a foreword on a topic he had hoped to advance further in a second term.

By then, his son, George W. Bush was President, and his administration already had issued in 2005 the historic Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.  The Thornburgh book to be published by CSIS in 2007 analyzed the 2005 White House report on Puerto Rico in the context of the successes and failures of federal territorial law and policy in the 20th century.

The working title I had adopted as lead researcher for Thornburgh on the project was Legacy of Empire: Resolving Territorial Status in Post-Cold War Era.  CSIS wanted a catchier more topical title, and Puerto Rico’s Future: A Time To Decide (CSIS, Washington DC, 2007), was the result.

But most readers looking at the book took less notice of the title than of “Foreword by President George H.W Bush” on the front cover.

One sentence distilled the heartfelt logic of his support to statehood:

“Puerto Ricans have fought bravely in all of America’s wars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  This patriotic service and sacrifice of Americans from Puerto Rico touched me all the more deeply for the very fact they have served with such devotion even while denied a vote for the President and members of Congress who determine when, where, and how they are asked to defend our freedoms.  Only statehood can give them that.”

His last sentence is just six words, but says it all.   At a time when last ditch anti-statehood lobbyists are arguing that territorial status can be made tolerable for the U.S. and Puerto Rico, clarity of thinking by our last President from the Greatest Generation rings true.

When we hear lobbyists argue it is “unincorporated territory” status that is the problem, his words tell the truth.  He rejected the ideas espoused by by those who insist that instead of statehood the territories need tax breaks, subsidies, greater “autonomy” and less “accountability,” trust funds to create “fiscal self-reliance” that really means sustained dependence, and/or a vote for President like DC!

G.H.W.B. knew that some but not all equal rights of citizenship and subsidized experiments in autonomy will not resolve the status dilemma.  He knew only equal federal voting rights for full representation in Congress and the Electoral College would make the U.S. citizen body politic of Puerto Rico whole.

No gimmicks, just equal rights and duties of national citizenship on an equal footing with all other U.S. citizens in the states of the union.

Bush Legacy Redeems Promise of America for “Citizens Without A State”

In 2016, I collaborated again with former President George H.W. Bush’s Attorney General, when I authored and he volunteered his time to write the foreword for “Citizens Without A State.”   That book confirmed the legitimacy and validity of the 2012 political status vote in Puerto Rico, the first fully informed and democratic act of self-determination on future status options in over 400 years of Spanish and American rule.

In his foreword, Thornburgh wrote:

“Howard Hills articulates the inescapable truism that ‘the primary democratic rights of national citizenship under the U.S. Constitution can be exercised only through State citizenship.’  For only citizens of a State admitted to the Union on equal footing with all other States are able to vote in federal elections, and thereby give consent to be governed by our nation’s leaders under the supreme law of the land.  To Hills that means one thing:  Something called ‘U.S. citizenship’ without federal voting rights and equal representation in the federal political process is a cruel historical hoax.”

The democratic majority rule mandate in the 2012 vote and a 2017 follow up vote is undeniable, despite desperate attempts by anti-statehood factions in San Juan and Washington to do just that.    But in large part because of the legacy of both President Bush (41) and President Bush (43), denial of the real choices that must be made is not sustainable.

The realities articulated by G.H.W.B. as President proved prophetic, and predicted the realities Puerto Rico and Congress face today.  Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings confirm that Bush (41) was right all along: the real choice for Puerto Rico is statehood, if its people are to remain U.S. citizens.

Only a constitutional amendment giving territories the same rights as the states can change the allocation of voting rights to states under Article I, Section 2 and Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution.

That legacy of telling the hard truths and leading with confidence despite the hard realities, and trusting informed consent of the governed even when the vote doesn’t go the way you wanted, is the legacy of President George H.W. Bush to Puerto Rico and its elected leaders.

Now, for Puerto Rico and Congress, it truly is a time to decide.

Howard Hills is author of “Citizens Without A State.”  He was territorial law counsel in Executive Office of the President under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  Look for his upcoming post on his service as a legal and policy adviser to both Reagan and Bush during official visits to the U.S. territories.

Photo shows Hills standing behind President Nakayama and Governors from Federated States of Micronesia, meeting with Bush at residence of High Commissioner of U.N. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in Saipan.


1 thought on “George H.W. Bush’s Legacy to Puerto Rico”

  1. The Time is now for FAIR Treatment-EQUAL RIGHTS for fellow US Citizens-American Veterans in the US Territory of Puerto Rico that face Federal Discrimination, since 1898-for over 120 years!

    God Bless President George Bush for his stalwart stand for RIGHT!

    Patriots of True Grit must rise to the occasion– contact our US Congress and US President; support: EQUALITY+JUSTICE+PROGRESS=STATEHOOD with DIGNITY!

    United with truth, reason, courage, and Civic Action-for the good of all!

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