Latino Rebels, a political website, has created a new poll asking their readers to share their views on the right political status for Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s conversation on political status, the Rebels say, is “colonial in nature, from the days of the Spanish to 120 years ago, when the United States took ownership of the island through the spoils of war.”
Spain, which owned Puerto Rico as a colony for 400 years, ceded the Island, along with other possessions in the New World, in the Treaty of Paris following the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico was indeed among the spoils of war.
The post introducing the survey touches on many concerns, from the fact that the the people of Puerto Rico cherish their U.S. citizenship to fears that the Jones Act raises the prices of consumer goods. Having mentioned these concerns, Latino Rebels presents their survey.
The survey consists of 10 questions. After two demographics questions, the survey asks whether Puerto Rico is currently a colony of the United States.
The next few questions ask about exploitation of Puerto Rico and corruption on the island. Question 7 returns to the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status.
This is roughly the same as Question 1 in the 2012 referendum, which asked whether voters would prefer the current political status, that of an unincorporated territory, or a different political status. In the 2012 vote, 54% of voters said they wanted a change.
The next questions asks whether readers are aware “the four major political options on the island”.
The Department of Justice reiterated last year what the federal government has been saying for decades: there are actually only three options for Puerto Rico’s political status under the U.S. constitution. Puerto Rico can continue as a territory. Puerto Rico can become a state. The Island can also become an independent nation, with or without a compact of Free Association.
So what fourth option is Latino Rebels envisioning? The next question lists four possibilities, and we can see that the fourth option is “Enhanced Commonwealth.” Free Association is separated from Independence — a tactic the DOJ rejected — and the current territory status is not included.
The biggest problem with “enhanced commonwealth” is that is is unconstitutional. All three branches of the federal government, along with legal scholars and national leaders, have said repeatedly that this is not in fact a viable option – politically as well as legally.
When it has been on the ballot, it has sometimes gotten the majority of votes. In those cases, Congress has expressed regret that the voters of Puerto Rico were duped into choosing an option that cannot become a reality.
Another problem is that even the political party that favors “enhanced commonwealth” cannot agree on a definition for this option. Latino Rebels describes it like this: “The Popular Democratic Party (PPD) advocates for keeping the commonwealth status of the island, but in an enhanced form. However, within the PPD, there is a growing division between philosophies, as one sector advocates for more autonomy and the ability for Puerto Rico to gain a free association compact in a similar fashion to the political relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States.”
The Department of Justice last year insisted that the plebiscite ballot must make “clear that a vote for ‘Free Association’ is a vote for complete and unencumbered independence.”
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) does not have “enhanced commonwealth” status. Nor is Free Association the same as “enhanced commonwealth.” As the DOJ stated, Free Association is independence.
Consistent with the Department of Justice letter, the RMI is an independent nation that the U.S. has used as a nuclear test site. The RMI does have a compact with the United States that provides a small subset of benefits to the tiny nation, which is prohibited under the terms of the compact from creating its own national defense and is required to provide land for the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. The RMI compact is schedule to expire in 2023, and the federal government currently plans to end much of it current financial assistance at that time.
Yet readers of the poll are asked to consider the undefined and unconstitutional “enhanced commonwealth” option as a possible “government structure.”
Since this is a survey and not a ballot, there is no harm done by including a political status which has been rejected by the United States government repeatedly over a period of decades.
It does seem disingenuous, though. It is appealing to imagine an undefined option that would give Puerto Rico the benefits of statehood while allowing the Island to ignore federal laws. In fact, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said, “If [Enhanced Commonwealth] were to find its way into our constitutional regimen, it would be quickly availed of by every one of the 50 States.”
Offering people a vague yet appealing option for a government structure that has never actually been a possibility makes the question essentially meaningless. If “enhanced commonwealth” is offered, it would be more honest to admit that it is not a real-world possibility.
Update, March 29, 2019: The results of the survey have not, as of this update, published.