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Next Steps for Puerto Rico

People all over the country are calling for action on the status of Puerto Rico, citing its clear mandate for statehood.

We are aware that some disagree. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there remains some ambiguity. The results for Question 1 are certainly not in doubt, as an article by Ricardo Rosselló Nevares in The Hill’s Congress Blog made clear:

When asked if they “agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?” an overwhelming 54 percent voted NO, thus rejecting the current territorial/colonial status. With more than 78 percent of the registered voters casting a ballot, the “NO” won by a margin of 140,000 votes, receiving thousands of votes more than any elected official. It won in all 8 senatorial districts and 39 out of the 40 representative districts.

It doesn’t seem possible to question this outcome.

What, then, are the options for Congress?

  • Congress could ignore the clearly expressed desire of the people of Puerto Rico to be released from the current territorial relationship. The United Nations already calls upon the U.S. each year to end what they consider a colonial relationship; with the people of Puerto Rico also requesting that the territorial status end, the United States would be in a awkward position if it goes this route. The U.S. would be one of the very few nations in possession of a colony against the will of its people. This would be inconsistent with our position as a leader for freedom throughout the world.
  • Congress could accept the vote in favor of statehood, which was the choice of 61% of those answering the second question, and advance legislation to make Puerto Rico a state.
  • Congress could enact legislation dictating terms of a new referendum in Puerto Rico, making it explicit that enhanced Commonwealth – which has been incorrectly referred to as an “adequate alternative” to statehood – is simply not part of the Puerto Rico status debate.  The argument to pursue this route is that it would bring clarity; the argument against it is that such clarity should already exist, in the form of decades of legal documentation and official statements.

The “Enhanced Commonwealth” idea that continues to be brought up is unconstitutional and unfeasible.  The most recent President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status specifically examined the possibility of a new definition of the Commonwealth relationship, and, like many preceding Task Force Reports, rejected it as impossible:

[C]onsistent with the legal conclusions reached by prior Task Force reports, one aspect of some proposals for enhanced Commonwealth remains constitutionally problematic—proposals that would establish a relationship between Puerto Rico and the Federal Government that could not be altered except by mutual consent. This was a focus of past Task Force reports. The Obama Administration has taken a fresh look at the issue of such mutual consent provisions, and it has concluded that such provisions would not be enforceable because a future Congress could choose to alter that relationship unilaterally.

As long as Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States, Congress is theoretically free to do anything it pleases with Puerto Rico, including ceding it back to Spain. In reality, the options are more limited – ultimately bring complete democracy to Puerto Rico or ignore the will of the Puerto Rican people.

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