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Puerto Rico’s Petition for Statehood: A Year Later

One year ago this week, Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States since 1898 not incorporated into the nation, voted for equality and permanence within the country.

In an insular plebiscite held along with the general elections, 54% voted against territory status, sometimes misleadingly called “Commonwealth” after the name of the territorial government, and 61.2% voted for statehood among the possible alternatives.

Nationhood options split the rest of the vote on the alternatives, with 33.3% for nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end and 4.5% for full independence.

The Obama Administration had supported the vote. The President’s spokesman said afterwards that the results were “clear:” Puerto Ricans voted to resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status (which requires statehood or nationhood) and a majority chose statehood as the alternative to territory status.

In the territorial elections, however, “Commonwealth” party candidates were very narrowly elected governor and to majorities of the seats in each house of the legislature, replacing statehood party control.  The ‘commonwealthers’ supported the losing territory status option in the plebiscite even though they said that the ballot was misleading because Puerto Rico is not a territory — contrary to rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, statements of successive presidents and their administrations, and congressional findings.

They also disputed the results of the plebiscite certified by Puerto Rico’s tripartisan Elections Commission, contending that ballots without votes on the question of the preferred alternative to territory status should be counted in the percentage breakdown of the results — contrary to determinations of the Elections Commission and the Puerto Rico Supreme Court as well as the law regarding the plebiscite and general election practice.

The real complaint of newly-elected Puerto Rico officials who are members of the “Commonwealth” party was that the ballot did not include their proposal for an unprecedented “Commonwealth status.”  Under the proposal, the Federal government would permanently empower the Commonwealth government to: veto the application of Federal laws to Puerto Rico; restrict the authority of Federal courts in the Commonwealth; and enter into international agreements and organizations limited to sovereign nations.

The U.S. Government would also be perpetually bound to grant: a new subsidy to the Commonwealth government; all current assistance to Puerto Ricans; and U.S. citizenship.

The Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional leaders have said that the proposal is impossible for constitutional and other reasons.

As a Columbia Law School expert wrote of the “Commonwealth” party official objections to the plebiscite, “Commonwealth supporters have made an art of objecting to any process that could potentially yield a victory for statehood.”

Recognizing that lobbying by Puerto Rico’s governor and legislative leaders against the statehood petition could result in congressional inaction on the self-determination decision of Puerto Ricans, President Obama proposed another plebiscite under U.S. Justice Department auspices, and included $2.5 million for it in his budget for the Federal fiscal year that began October 1st.

The vote on an option or options to be determined by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission from among the four in Puerto Rico’s local plebiscite a year ago would be difficult for officials who are “Commonwealth” party members to dispute with any credibility.

The Republican-dominated Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has approved Democrat Obama’s proposal.

In addition, Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government, who has a seat in the U.S. House with a vote only in committees, sponsored a bill for a “Yes” or “No” vote on statehood.  Under the bill by Pedro Pierluisi, who also was the top vote getter for any office in the elections a year ago and heads the statehood party, if the vote is in favor of statehood, the president would be required to submit a plan for the transition of the territory into the Union of States.

Most recently, the U.S. Senate committee with jurisdiction over the political status of territories — Energy and and Natural Resources — held a hearing on the plebiscite. Members emphasized that Puerto Rico’s status options are those that were on the 2012 plebiscite ballot, with Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) noting that the status question is Puerto Rico’s fundamental issue and that it can only be resolved through statehood or nationhood.


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