During the past few days, close associates of Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla (“Commonwealth” party) conducted a news media attack on two of the U.S. senators most important to Puerto Rico on the senators’ home turfs.
The targets were Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Ranking Minority Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Their committee has jurisdiction over the political status of territories.
Additionally, Wyden is widely expected to become chairman of the Committee on Finance soon with the appointment of current Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) as Ambassador to China. The Finance Committee handles tax legislation — a major Puerto Rico Federal concern since the territory is treated differently than a State in most tax laws — and most of the social programs in which the territory is not treated equally with the States, including Medicaid, Medicare, and assistance for low-income aged and disabled and out of work families.
The attack began just a few days after Garcia dismissed the importance of Wyden and Murkowski writing that status proposals similar to the “Commonwealth” party’s “Developed Commonwealth” plan had no chance of being accepted by Congress.
Authored by former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, the attack also made a series of false assertions regarding “Developed Commonwealth.”
Hernandez Colon is the “Commonwealth” party’s most influential, unofficial voice on status matters and father of Garcia’s two lead representatives on Federal affairs.
One of the two is Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration Director Juan Hernandez Mayoral, whose office helped distribute the attack.
Hernandez Mayoral sent the attack to a news service in the capital city of Wyden’s home State of Oregon, Salem.
Puerto Rico law strictly prohibits using government money to promote partisan positions — such as advocacy of “Developed Commonwealth.”
The attack was also published as a full-page advertisement in a newspaper for the congressional community. The newspaper’s rate for such ads is $14,210.
The ad did not identify its source of funding.
Wyden and Murkowski also said that the “Developed Commonwealth” proposal was not a possible status option during a hearing on Puerto Rico’s November 2012 status plebiscite in August.
Wyden’s statements then prompted the general secretary of the “Commonwealth” party, which Garcia heads, to charge that Wyden took the position he did because of political contributions from advocates of equality for Puerto Rico. The accusation was found to have no basis.
Further, the position is far from unique: Other congressional authorities — including Wyden’s predecessor as committee chairman — and the Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations have also said that the “Developed Commonwealth” proposal is impossible for constitutional and other reasons.
Under the plan, the Commonwealth government would be permanently empowered to nullify Federal laws and court jurisdiction and to enter into international trade and other arrangements as if Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation. The U.S. would be obligated to grant the government a new subsidy and Federal land as well as continue all current assistance to Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizenship, and totally free trade access.
Last Sunday, Garcia told reporters that the Wyden and Murkowski letter reiterating the position “meant nothing” — a statement contradicted by the attack launched a few days later by his Hernandez family associates.
The Governor also charged that the senators’ stance was “undemocratic” and “closed the door to Puerto Rican self-determination” — accusations that former Governor Hernandez also made in his attack.
The Hernandez Colon assertion in the attack that will be most controversial in Puerto Rico is that “Developed Commonwealth does not mean a sovereign Commonwealth.”
The “Commonwealth” party’s position is that it does, and a vocal wing of the party is very insistent about “Developed Commonwealth” being a status not subject to Federal territory governing authority.
Hernandez Colon’s other misleading “Developed Commonwealth” claims began with a representation that President Eisenhower said the United States would agree to greater self-government for Puerto Rico in its territory status, often misleadingly called “Commonwealth,” if Puerto Ricans sought that.
In fact, Eisenhower said that he would recommend independence if Puerto Rico’s legislature requested independence.
The Federal government had already allowed Puerto Rico’s insular government to exercise the authority of a State government.
Hernandez Colon also asserted that then Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman J. Bennett Johnson (D-LA) and Ranking Minority Member Malcolm Wallop (R-WY) sponsored a bill that had a “Developed Commonwealth” option in 1991.
The whole truth, however, is that: Wallop opposed the bill. It lost when voted on in the committee. And Hernandez Colon, then Governor, lobbied against it, in large part because most of his “Commonwealth” proposals were discarded by Johnston during consideration of the legislation.
The former Governor noted that “Commonwealth” expansion proposals won Puerto Rico’s 1967 and 1993 plebiscites.
He neglected to point out, however, that the 1967 proposal was rejected when seriously reviewed in Congress and opposed by President Ford.
He also ignored the facts that the 1993 plan did not obtain a majority of the vote and was found to not be viable by congressional leaders and the Clinton Administration.
Hernandez Colon contended that the 2012 plebiscite was “structured … in such a way that a majority voted for a change in the current status.”
The “structure” was a simple “Yes” or “No” vote on Puerto Rico’s current status — territory. The vote was 54% against despite the “Commonwealth” party urging votes for the option.
He also claimed that statehood obtained a “[p]lurality” of the vote in the plebiscite and “has not been taken seriously in this Congress.”
In fact, however, statehood won 61.2% of the vote and 130 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have sponsored statehood legislation.
Hernandez Colon asserted that there is a right to vote for the “Developed Commonwealth” proposal — even though Federal authorities have said that it is impossible.
The Wyden-Murkowski letter was prompted by the “Commonwealth” party-controlled government preparing to call a government assembly to make the “Developed Commonwealth’ plan the territory’s future status proposal.
Further discouraging such an assembly, the senators noted that Congress is still considering President Obama’s proposal for responding to the 2012 plebiscite. The proposal is for a Federally supported vote on one or more of the 2012 plebiscite’s options.
The Obama-proposed vote would be on an option or options proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission, which includes a representative of each of Puerto Rico’s status-based political parties. The proposed option or options would have to be found by the U.S. Department of Justice not to conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
The White House embraced the 2012 plebiscite and its results but proposed another vote because Garcia and the other ‘commonwealthers’ who now control Puerto Rico’s government dispute the plebiscite and results. Their opposition threatened to cause Congress to not act on Puerto Ricans’ self-determination petition for equality within the U.S.
Like the plebiscite, the vote proposed by the Obama Administration would not include the “Developed Commonwealth” proposal because it has no possibility of being implemented.
“Commonwealth” party leaders — who have lobbied Federal officials to not act in response to the plebiscite — have said that they will call their status assembly if the Federal government does not act in response to the 2012 plebiscite in 2013. They have established a joint Senate-House of Representatives committee in Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly to draft legislation for the status assembly.
As is Congress’ habit, it has kicked the can of finally determining Puerto Rico’s status down the road. There is only one question that should appear on the plebiscite after Public Law 600 of 1952, which created the “Commonwealth” mess, is repealed: Statehood or Independence.
But Congress doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to do so. Republicans oppose it because if Puerto Rico voted for statehood, that would mean seven Democrat congressmen and two Democrat Senators. If independence prevailed, there is no doubt that two million islanders would move to the mainland the day after the results were announced.
The conundrum will continue for another 100 years.