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The End of “Commonwealth”

In a Roll Call op-ed this morning, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi responded to an earlier piece in the same publication in which former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon called the November 6th plebiscite a defeat for statehood.

Pierluisi focused primarily on the numbers behind the recent results and explains why statehood clearly won, but we believe there is also a more fundamental flaw in the former governor’s analysis.

In his article, Hernandez Colon complains that the plebiscite’s two-part ballot “didn’t present voters with adequate alternatives to statehood – such as remaining a commonwealth.”  As we have explained, for Puerto Rico to “remain” anything it would have to stay a territory – its current status.  The “commonwealth” label is indeed popular, but it is also nondescript and carries no legal significance.

Mr. Hernandez Colon explains in a parenthetical that “Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth under a compact with the United States since 1950.”  Congress did pass legislation in 1950 granting Puerto Rico local authority over its own government, but the legislative history makes it crystal clear that the 1950 law did not “change Puerto Rico’s political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.”  As Oscar Chapman, Secretary of the Interior, explained at the time, “the bill merely authorizes the people of Puerto Rico to adopt their own constitution and to organize a local government[.]”

So what does Mr. Hernandez Colon mean when he says that the ballot excluded “adequate alternatives?”  He is referring to the notion of a “commonwealth,” an option that, as Pierluisi responded in his op-ed today, has been rejected by the last four presidential administrations and  all key congressional leaders.  (Click here for a list of quotes, with links to original sources, concluding that a “commonwealth” would be unconstitutional and unfeasible in the United States.)

The concept of a “commonwealth” as an “alternative” to Puerto Rico’s current territorial status is simply a non-starter, which is why it was excluded from the 1998 ballot as well as the more recent 2012 election.  Giving the people of Puerto Rico an “alternative” with such an established record of rejection would be unproductive as well as unethical.

These setbacks do not appear to have stopped “commonwealth” proponents.  They are instead attempting to cast doubt over the 2012 ballot process and  vote counting, even while the White House confirms that “the results were clear,” and explains that “[n]ow is the time for Congress to act and the Administration will work with them on that effort, so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future.”

A new chapter in Puerto Rican self determination has begun, and this chapter does not include notions of an “commonwealth.”  It is time to stop crying foul and reworking the numbers.  It is time to get to the serious work of planning how to finally bring American democracy to all of its U.S. citizens.

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