The Enduring Legacy of “Commonwealth”

When Puerto Rico is referred to as a “commonwealth,” the term is often not intended to describe Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. territory.  Instead the word as used by its supporters refers to a combination of contradictory notions of independence and statehood that has been called “a letter to Santa Claus” (Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY)) and “the free beer and barbecue option.” (Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)).

Just last week, Rafael Cox Alomar, a 2012 candidate for Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico , wrote in the Hill: “[I]n Puerto Rico there is a robust proportion of the eligible voters who would reject statehood if faced with the options of either an enhanced Commonwealth or a well-rounded free association arrangement.”

The idea of “enhanced Commonwealth or a well-rounded free association arrangement” has been soundly rejected by Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House many times and over many years.  Yet the notion appears to be resurfacing as though it were a viable status option.

What is “enhanced commonwealth”?

In this video clip, commonwealth supporter Alejandro Garcia Padilla attempts to explain what his party means by “enhanced commonwealth.” He is not able to provide a clear description of this status option. The senators asking questions in this hearing later wrote that “enhanced commonwealth” was “not a viable option.”

However, the former governor does say clearly and repeatedly that “commonwealth” is not the same as the current territorial status. In fact, he appears to be saying that the commonwealth is a process of negotiation between the United States and Puerto Rico.

“[T]he misguided “enhanced Commonwealth option”’ … perpetuates the false hope that Puerto Ricans can have the best of both worlds: they can have U.S. citizenship and national sovereignty; they can receive generous Federal funding and have the power to veto those laws with which it disagrees,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in a House floor debate in 2010. “It is no surprise that this proposal has been soundly rejected as a viable option by the U.S. Department of Justice, the State Department, the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration. It is time that the people of Puerto Rico are given real options for the future political status of their homeland and not false promises.”

The Obama administration also rejected the “enhanced commonwealth” option, and the Supreme Court reaffirmed that Puerto Rico is not sovereign.

Why is the “enhanced commonwealth” option still being discussed?

Statehood was the choice of the majority of voters in the status votes held in 2012 and 2017. The “commonwealth” party maintains that not having “Commonwealth” on the ballot in either vote was tantamount to disenfranchising those who would like to vote for “commonwealth.”

Since the United States will not accept “enhanced commonwealth,” a vote for “commonwealth” would be a vote for the current territorial option, which was roundly defeated in both plebiscites. The “commonwealth” party does not accept this.

The rise of figures like Carmen Yulin Cruz, a member of the “commonwealth” party, combined with a lack of awareness of the history of the “commonwealth” option, has revived the idea in popular conversation. “A new partnership, a bold partnership, a progressive partnership, could be the basis of a new relationship between the United States and the people of Puerto Rico,” said Yulin Cruz, now working on Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign.

The “enhanced commonwealth” idea is fluid, but it is not new. It has been rejected repeatedly over a period of decades by every branch of the federal government.

“[N]o one in Puerto Rico supports the present status,” said Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY). “When they say they support commonwealth, they support a new commonwealth, which I call a letter to the Three Kings or a letter to Santa Claus.  Because it says let me be a state, but let me be an independent nation.”

However, these facts are not well known or understood in the United States, and they are not accepted by the “commonwealth” party.

Rejection of reality

In its 2008 platform, the “commonwealth” party said, “The Popular Democratic Party believes in a dignified political partnership, not colonial or territorial between Puerto Rico and the United States based on the power of the people of Puerto Rico to determine their key issues, and the indissoluble bond of American citizenship.” The federal government has reaffirmed repeatedly that Puerto Rico is a territory and that the bond of U.S. citizenship is not in fact dissoluble. Both these matters are in fact within the power of the United States government to determine.

Rafael Cox Alomar proposed three questions for the federal government to address:

  • Firstly, what would Puerto Rico’s transition to free association or independence look like in terms of economic, security and defense policies?
  • Secondly…how does the committee propose addressing the issue of citizenship under a sovereignty arrangement?
  • Thirdly, is the committee willing to work side-by-side with a constitutional convention duly elected by the people of Puerto Rico?

The Department of Justice clearly said in 2017 that free association is not enhanced commonwealth, but independence, and that the terms of such a relationship would have to be negotiated by the sovereign nations of the United States and Puerto Rico — not by the territory of Puerto Rico. In a letter, the DOJ said, “[v]oters may misperceive … that Free Association is an ‘enhanced Commonwealth” option, when the reality is that both choices [independence with and without free association] would result in complete and unencumbered independence and both would require an assessment of a variety of issues related to citizenship.”

Free association, in other words, is independence. Continued citizenship is uncertain. And a U.S. Congress which doesn’t believe in “enhanced commonwealth” probably can’t work with a constitutional convention that does.

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