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Puerto Rico’s Choices: Statehood or Independence

The new referendum law enacted by the Puerto Rico Legislature and signed by Governor Ricardo Rossello defines the political status options for the ballot as statehood or independence. Whether independence in the future will be with or without possible agreement on a treaty alliance known as “free association” would be determined in a subsequent referendum, but only if the vote now anticipated in June favors independence over statehood.

It is both promising and historical that the new territorial government political status referendum law appears to be substantially consistent and compliant with the bipartisan law adopted by Congress in 2014, sponsoring and providing $2.5 million for a federal recognized referendum on status options certified by the U.S. Attorney General to be compatible with the Constitution, laws and policies of the United States.

Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress, Representative Jennifer Gonzales Colon, also has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to sponsor a political status referendum on terms parallel to the local territorial legislature’s new law, as well as the 2014 federal law sponsoring a new status vote to confirm results of a 2012 locally sponsored vote. The local election commission certified majority rejection of the current status and approval for statehood in the 2012 vote.

The San Juan Daily Star reports in its February 7 edition that the leaders of the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) have accepted the terms of the new local political status referendum law, which will be conducted under the earlier federal referendum act adopted by Congress in 2014. The President of the PIP announced that his party will defend the independent sovereign nationhood option on the ballot against the “annexationist” option of statehood.

This means the statehood party majority in the Puerto Rico Legislature and the pro-statehood Governor have reached an accommodation with the PIP that statehood and nationhood are the two options for decolonization that will appear on the ballot. It is significant that the opposing statehood and independence movements have embraced the federal and local referendum laws now in place that will allow for a free and informed act of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico, who currently are U.S. citizens.

Historically the PIP has asserted it will oppose and resist statehood even if approved by a majority, arguing that even a democratic vote for admission to the union would be under duress and coercion due to the territory’s colonial experience during more than a century of U.S. rule. The PIP vows it will never accept statehood, and anticipates the U.S. will decide in the end not to confer statehood because Puerto Rico is a separate nation that will never submit to permanent U.S. sovereignty.

The same arguments were made by some within independence factions in Texas, Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii, including assertions U.S. racism and imperialism would prevent statehood due to Puerto Rican ethnic idiosyncrasies that make cultural and social integration impossible.

In that context, it is particularly noteworthy that the new local territorial referendum law provides that transition provisions on U.S. citizenship will be subject to negotiation if voters approve independent nationhood with a treaty of free association. This appears to preserve U.S. ability by non-agreement to conferral of future U.S. citizenship at birth in Puerto Rico in the event a free association treaty is mutually agreed, and complies with the 2014 federal referendum law requiring all options of the ballot to be consistent with the Constitution, laws and policies of the United States.

Accordingly, it appears that the 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, after 118 years under U.S. rule will be afforded their right to exercise the inherent sovereignty of all people to chose between full and equal rights and duties of national and state citizenship in permanent constitutional union with the United States, or to become citizens of the Republic of Puerto Rico as a separate sovereign nation with is own nationality and citizenship under a local constitution which would be the supreme law of the land.

Interestingly, U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who is of Puerto Rican ancestry but does not represent Puerto Rico in Congress, has introduced a bill calling for a status vote in Puerto Rico offering a choice between independence with free association and independence without free association. “Let the Puerto Rican people decide if now is the time for our Declaration of Independence,” he said in a February 3 press release.

Just as it is feasible for statehood supporters to advocate an up or down vote on admission to the union, supporters of independent nationhood with or without free association may propose an up or down vote on ending U.S. rule in favor of sovereignty for the island territory. Thus, the PIP also supports the Gutierrez bill, and in fact would prefer an up or down vote on nationhood, just as statehood supporters would prefer the yes or no vote for that option.

By excluding the option of statehood the Gutierrez bill is not consistent with U.S. federal territorial law and policy holding that statehood and independence with or without free association are both valid options to achieve a non-territorial and fully democratic form of self-government. In 2012 a majority of voters rejected continuation of the current status, which is territorial and not fully self-governing due to the retention of all residual sovereignty and power by Congress as long as territorial status continues. As a result the current status cannot be developed to enhanced to achieve a fully democratic status.

Even though the PIP claims to have international support and that statehood would violate international law, in reality the Gutierrez bill also is not consistent with applicable United Nations resolutions on decolonization of territories, which expressly recognize statehood as a form of integration of the territory into another nation with equal citizenship rights as non-colonial and fully democratic. Because the federal and now local territorial laws under which the referendum will be held also include independence and free association as options, the new Puerto Rico status act under local law is fully consistent with those same applicable U.N. resolutions, while the Gutierrez bill is not.

However, there is an important convergence of political truth embodied in the Gutierrez independence-only bill and the position of the statehood and independence parties in Puerto Rico recognizing the new local self-determination act with statehood and independence or free association options. The common ground that has been reached recognizes a fully democratic form of self-government can not be attained by continuation of the current territorial status.

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