Influential Puerto Rican leaders discussed the future status of Puerto Rico at a Harvard Law School forum on Wednesday.
The keynote address was given by the Honorable Juan R. Torruella, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. In what he called his “Harvard pronouncement,” Judge Torruella advocated economic pressure to bring about change, and he suggested bringing Puerto Ricans on the mainland as well as the island, the broader Latino constituency and other sympathetic individuals into this effort. He recommended “gradually engaging in time-honored civil rights actions, of which there are many successful examples,” and concluded by explaining: “Mine is but an idea that I place on the public forum. How these civil rights actions might be carried out, if at all, is beyond my expertise or power. But the suggested ideas bear consideration by those in a position to transform them into action.”
The last panel of the symposium was entitled, “The Future Status of Puerto Rico.” Representatives of each of the three major political parties in Puerto Rico were represented: Rafael Cox Alomar (former PDP candidate for Resident Commissioner), Andres Lopez (PNP) and Carlos Gorrin Peralta (PIP).
The first panelist, Andres Lopez, urged Harvard Law School to continue to play a leadership role. Citing the scholarship of former Harvard professors at the turn of the last century in creating the legal foundation of the Insular Cases, Lopez stated that Harvard can lead in ending the their “shameful legacy.” He told the audience that “the current crisis creates an opportunity to revisit” the judicial result. He further pointed out that today’s situation showed the consequences of long term inequality and that helping end this situation is “Harvard’s challenge.” Lopez urged Harvard, his alma mater, to say that the U.S. should not hold territories indefinitely and that the U.S. does not permit second class citizenship.
Lopez also urged action by the Obama administration, which he said has already changed Puerto Rico for the better. Lopez observed that the territory’s economic status is intertwined with resolution of its status, that the White House is committed to resolving the problem, and that President Obama can do more.
“Obama can now cement his legacy,” Lopez urged. He mentioned a 2009 letter in which the President vowed to resolve the status issue, and noted that in recognizing the 2012 plebiscite results, Obama has become the first president in history to acknowledge a current rejection of the status quo by Puerto Ricans. If Obama could also be the first president to recognize equal citizenship as a “moral imperative,” Lopez said, he will “cement his legacy with the Puerto Rican people.” Lopez concluded that, “our history shows that change doesn’t come from Washington; change comes to Washington.”
Cox Alomar used part of his allocated time to make the case that Puerto Rico should convene a Constitutional Convention whose representatives would then negotiate with the federal government on the terms and conditions of the available options for Puerto Rico’s status, which would then be put to the people in a vote.
He also demonstrated a break within the “Commonwealth” party by noting that members of the party must come to terms with the “inescapable reality” that enhanced Commonwealth is dead. Recognizing an “ideological crisis,” he stated that the PDP leadership has been unwilling to acknowledge that as a matter of U.S. public policy, the “enhancement” of the Commonwealth formula can only flourish outside of U.S. sovereignty.
Cox Alomar concluded by describing what he labeled in a PowerPoint slide as “Principal Elements of Future Relationship Premised on Sovereignty.” The four elements are: (1) the inapplicability of the Jones Act to Puerto Rico, (2) the granting of powers under the Treaty of Paris to Puerto Rico, (3) a compact of association should be negotiated whereby seminal issues, like foreign affairs, should be established, and (4) the establishment of a dignified non-colonial and non-territorial relationship with the United States premised on Puerto Rican sovereignty.
Gorrin Peralta spoke eloquently about how Congress should act to fulfill its legal, practical and moral obligations. We are at a crisis period, he said, explaining that: (1) colonialism has failed after 116 years. with a broken economy and long term recession/depression, (2) the people of Puerto Rico have rejected territorial relationship – consent to a colonial regime is never sufficient, but now it doesn’t even exist, and (3) there is an international recognition of the problem. This situation raises two questions according to Gorrin Peralta: (1) what are our options, (2) what process can get us there?
He spoke about Free Association, rejecting the option as a situation in which Puerto Rico would have to give up all of its rights and then try to negotiate a better deal. He noted that there is little precedent for it, and entities that do have it also have very low populations. Gorrin Peralta also rejected statehood, saying that it won a lower percentage in 2012 than in 1998.
He cautioned that the United States must know that independent entities do not go away, citing a long list of problem situations including Scotland, the Basque region, Quebec and the countries that at one time were combined to create Yugoslavia. He also said that legislation pending before the U.S. Congress does not solve the problem, nor does the recent $2.5 million to fund a new federally-approved plebiscite.
He concluded by noting that “we are truly at a crossroads” and “decisions must be made.” He announced that the conference “must mark a new beginning” and requested Harvard to “expunge its history on this issue from law reviews in 1899, which paved the way for the colonization of Puerto Rico.”
“The time has come,” said Gorrin Peralta. The current situation is “totally inconsistent with the spirit as well as the words of Constitution.”