Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth status” party administration has made lobbying the new Congress against authorizing a territorial plebiscite on statehood a top priority, letters obtained by the PUERTO RICO REPORT reveal.
Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, Pedro Pierluisi, is expected to propose legislation for a vote on statehood in the territory but has not even done so yet.
The letters are from Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla and the head of his offices in the States, Juan Hernandez, and were sent to members of Congress. (Copies follow this article.)
Hernandez sent the first letter to the Congress members more than a month before the new Congress took office. Garcia sent one less than two weeks ago.
The letters describe Garcia’s efforts to have a political status plebiscite under a Federal law enacted a year ago.
Omitted, however, was any mention of why the efforts have not succeeded yet or what is really going on with the issue.
Last year, the Governor called upon the Legislative Assembly, controlled in both houses by his party, to also provide for the plebiscite. It has not, however, because too many party leaders oppose the “commonwealth status” proposal made last July by Hernandez’s father, former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, that Garcia had embraced.
The part of the proposal to which they object would leave Puerto Rico partially subject to the broad power of each Congress to govern territories under the U.S. Constitution’s Territory Clause.
The proposal calls for Puerto Rico to be partially exempted from this power: One Congress would supposedly give up the power of future Congresses to govern Puerto Rico on matters that States handle, although this would actually require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status made clear in its March 2011 report — an unrealistic goal.
The opposed party leaders object at least as much to the power that Congress would retain: authority to continue to govern Puerto Rico on national government matters. This is an authority that Hernandez Colon himself has written is “undemocratic” because the territory does not — and cannot — have voting representation in the Congress.
The opponents want Puerto Rico to become a nation but in an association with the United States. Despite Puerto Rico becoming a nation, however, they also want the association to guarantee that future generations of Puerto Ricans would have U.S. national citizenship.
The party’s Governing Board named Hernandez Colon and three other party leaders — two from each side — to try to come up with a compromise proposal. The committee has been unsuccessful, however, in five months of meetings.
In spite of the stalemate, Gov. Garcia wrote that the proposal of the territory’s resident commissioner for the Federal government to authorize an insular vote on statehood “usurps the powers of the Commonwealth and the right of the people of Puerto Rico to initiate the process on their future political status.”
Pierluisi, who heads the statehood party, led 132 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three U.S. senators during the last Congress in sponsoring bills for a territorial vote on statehood.
Garcia’s predecessor as “commonwealth” party president, former Puerto Rico House of Representatives Minority Leader Hector Ferrer, however, has also championed a plebiscite on statehood.
Further, Senate President Eduardo Bhatia has said that he could back an insular vote on statehood if it had congressional support.
Additionally, the bills sponsored by 136 members of the last Congress would not, as Garcia claimed, take away any ability of the insular government to act on the status issue as it wishes or the right of Puerto Ricans to initiate a status resolution process. The bills would have simply authorized an insular vote on statehood, not required one.
Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration Director Juan Hernandez made a different argument against congressional authorization for a statehood vote. He wrote, “any legislation that eliminates Commonwealth and Independence as an option … is inherently unfair to the majority of Puerto Ricans who support those options.”
A “Statehood: Yes or No” plebiscite would not, however, eliminate “Commonwealth” (the current territory status) or independence as options. In fact, the current territory status would be the primary beneficiary of a majority vote against statehood. Independence — and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end — would also remain options if a vote on statehood rejects statehood.
Opponents of statehood could vote against the status in a statehood plebiscite as easily as supporters could vote for it. In fact, a “Statehood: Yes or No” vote would pit statehood against all of Puerto Rico’s other status options combined.
In the only plebiscite in Puerto Rico limited to real options, which was held along with the Commonwealth’s elections in November 2012, a solid majority rejected the current status. Statehood won more than three-fifths of the vote among the alternatives. Independence garnered only 4.5%. Nationhood in an association with the U.S. got a third.
At about the time that Gov. Garcia was writing his letter, Hernandez Colon gave a different reason for opposing a statehood plebiscite: He emphatically said that statehood would win easily.
The Federal law providing for a status plebiscite requires that the option or options for the ballot be able to resolve the issue and do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The option or options are to be proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission,
The possible options are statehood, independence, and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.
The current status would not qualify because it cannot resolve the issue: Puerto Ricans would retain the right to petition for statehood or nationhood as long as Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory of the U.S.
There is no other “Commonwealth” that could be an option because no other possible “Commonwealth” status other than one subject to congressional territory governing power has ever been identified, despite more than six decades of proposals.