Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has been considering three strategies for defeating not only statehood but the “Sovereign Commonwealth” advocated by many in the ‘Commonwealth’ party he heads in a plebiscite provided for by a Federal law enacted in January. The alternatives have become clear through recent statements of the party’s Federal affairs representative, Jose Hernandez Mayoral.
The schemes would maintain Puerto Rico’s current territory status championed by Hernandez Mayoral’s father, former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon. The party’s dominant thinker on status and other political matters for 45 years, Hernandez Colon continues to refuse to accept that Puerto Rico is a “territory” and insists that it has “commonwealth status.”
Two of the plans are based on the status choice process for which President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status expressed “a marginal preference” in its only report, issued in 2011. As worded in the report, Puerto Ricans would “first vote on the question of whether they would like to be part of the United States or would like to be independent, and then choose between the available status options, as limited by the outcome of the first vote.”
The report inaccurately identified “Commonwealth” along with statehood as the part of the U.S. options. It included independence and “free association” — nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end — as the independence options.
One of the plans would include the national sovereignty called “Sovereign Commonwealth” advocated by party leaders such as San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, House of Representatives Majority Leader Charlie Hernandez, former Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, and a majority of the party’s members of the Senate, as the “free association” option.
Recognizing that the vast majority of Puerto Ricans prize U.S. citizenship and other aspects of being an area of the U.S., the Governor’s team reasons that the first vote in the presidential task force suggested process would be handily won by the part of the U.S. option. It would be backed by proponents of statehood — the option with the most support in the territory — along with people who accept their status quo “Commonwealth.”
“Sovereign Commonwealth” would lose along with independence because, for example, it could at most preserve U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans alive at the time of a transition to nationhood, as recommended by the Obama Task Force. It could also, however, result in Puerto Ricans alive at the time of nationhood having to choose between U.S. citizenship and citizenship in the new nation. And, in either case, it would not enable individuals born in Puerto Rico after nationhood to have U.S. citizenship.
Garcia’s team thinks that most ‘Commonwealth’ party voters and even some true nationalists would then cast ballots for the “Commonwealth” option in the second-round vote to try to defeat statehood, with other nationalists simply not voting.
The Obama Task Force’s report’s identification of “Commonwealth” as a part of the U.S. option, however, is inaccurate because, as the Obama Justice Department made clear in a court filing two weeks ago, Puerto Rico is a “possession” that has not been made a permanent part of the U.S. If Puerto Rico had been made a part of the United States by Congress — an ‘incorporated’ territory vs. the unincorporated’ territory it is — it could not become a nation, it would be indisputably destined for statehood, and there would be no question of its ultimate status.
The Federal plebiscite law requires the U.S. Justice Department to agree that the vote’s options can resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status and do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States. The Federal agency can, therefore, be expected to disagree that “Commonwealth” can be a part of the U.S. status.
So, a revised version of the Obama Task Force’s marginally preferred status choice process would make the first vote choice between Puerto Rico having a “permanent relationship” with the U.S. and national sovereignty. The Garcia team assumes that the “permanent relationship” with the U.S. option would win overwhelmingly because the “Sovereign Commonwealth” proposal would supposedly make Puerto Rico a nation in a permanent association with the U.S. (which is not a possible status because nations can end associations with other nations).
The team thinks that many “Sovereign Commonwealth” voters could be persuaded to vote for the permanent relationship with the U.S. option and only true nationalists would vote for national sovereignty. The Garcia team hopes that, then, again, some nationalists would join with most ‘Commonwealth’ party voters to try to defeat statehood in what the team sees as a second-round choice between statehood and “Commonwealth,” with other nationalists not voting.
The process would, therefore, also outmaneuver the ‘Commonwealth’ party’s “sovereigntist’ leaders.
Since their party’s “sovereigntist” leaders may see through both processes inspired by the Obama Task Force, the Garcia team has a different plan to defeat “Sovereign Commonwealth” as well as statehood. In this case, all four status options — statehood, independence, free association but called “Sovereign Commonwealth,” and “Commonwealth” as they claim it exists — would be options in a first-round plebiscite. There would then be a run-off vote between the two options with the most support.
An argument for this approach is that ‘Commonwealth’ party “sovereigntist” leaders could be told that “Sovereign Commonwealth” has an equal chance on the ballot with the Hernandez-Garcia vision of “Commonwealth.” But the Garcia team expects that its “Commonwealth” would get into the second round with statehood instead of “Sovereign Commonwealth” and hopes that most ‘commonwealthers’ and some nationalists would then join to defeat statehood.
The plan counts on the “sovereigntists” betting the opposite: that it is “Sovereign Commonwealth” which ultimately squares off against statehood.
A major weakness in all of the Garcia team’s strategies is that the presidential task force accurately explained that “Commonwealth” would mean, “Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution” — a finding of the George W. Bush and Clinton Administrations and congressional committee leaders of both national political parties as well.
The Territory Clause empowers Congress to govern territories as it wishes in matters that States handle as well as in matters that are considered national in the States.
Hernandez Colon and Garcia Padilla argue that the Federal government has ceded to the Commonwealth government the Congress’ power to govern Puerto Rico in even more matters than States govern in a grant of power that “cannot be altered except by mutual consent.” But this is not possible, the Obama Task Force correctly pointed out, “because a future Congress could choose to alter that relationship unilaterally.”
Thus, “Commonwealth” cannot be a “permanent relationship” with the U.S. option in the first place as well as cannot be a part of the U.S. option. It also cannot be a status that partially exempts Puerto Rico from Congress’ Territory Clause power to govern territories in all matters.
And advocates of “Sovereign Commonwealth” and other nationhood proposals reject the current status as “colonial” and cannot be counted on to vote for such a “Commonwealth.”
Another part of the strategy involves timing of the two-vote plebiscite. The Garcia team is inclined for it to occur next year not long before the statehood party has what it now seems will be a hotly contested primary election for its nominee for governor. Garcia’s team believes that this would divert money from the statehood campaign for the plebiscite and prevent pro-statehood leaders from unifying for the campaign.
It could also result in some statehood champions urging a boycott of the plebiscite for internal party reasons.
Garcia tentatively plans for the ‘Commonwealth’ party’s Governing Board to meet next week to discuss its strategy for the plebiscite. From a statement he made last week and other reports, he does not yet have the votes to push through a plan that would out-maneuver the effort to have the party stand for national sovereignty.