For decades, Puerto Rico voters have been promised things that can’t be delivered.
The 2020 plebiscite offered a choice between statehood, a clear possibility under the U.S. constitution, and not having statehood, which is also possible in the form of continued territory status or independence.
But there is continued discussion of other options that were not on the ballot, with brings up the history an arrangement that has been soundly rejected by Federal officials across the political spectrum based on Constitutional and practical grounds but still has some adherents in Puerto Rico. It is referred to as an “enhanced” or “developed” Commonwealth, or simply “Commonwealth.”
In 1998, when this option was considered for inclusion in a Puerto Rico plebiscite, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) talked about his own sympathy for the “commonwealth” adherents who claimed they were being disenfranchised.
In the House Floor Debate on the subject, Miller said, “I was very distraught at the beginning of this process because I felt that those who support commonwealth were not able to present their definition to the Congress, to the committee. I worked very hard so that that definition could be offered. I offered that definition. It was turned down overwhelming[ly] on a bipartisan basis. It was something called ‘enhanced commonwealth.’ It was sort of a make-believe status of commonwealth.”
Miller went on to explain what he meant by “make-believe status,” saying, “The suggestion was that if you voted for commonwealth, you would then be empowered to pick your way through the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the United States and pick and choose which laws you wanted to apply and not have apply, and that you did not have to live under the power of the Congress of the United States or of the Constitution of the United States. That simply was unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of the committee. I believe it is unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of this House….and I believe it would clearly be unacceptable to the people of this country.”
That has not stopped “commonwealth” proponents from making those promises. And some members of Congress continue to be “distraught” because they worry the individuals who want some type of “commonwealth” arrangement are not being given an opportunity to present their views.
What Impossible Promises Have Been Made to the Voters of Puerto Rico?
For at least two decades, “commonwealth” proponents have relied on versions of a definition approved by the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico in 1998 (unaffiliated with the U.S. Democratic party). In 2010, the party’s Governing Board published a resolution declaring that “the definition of Commonwealth to be proposed in any future plebiscite must be based on the outline, judicial framework, and 17 specific areas of autonomous growth presented in the document ‘Pact of the Future.'”
The “Pact of the Future” begins by calling for a negotiation process between the United States and Puerto Rico, “on an equal footing,” and a Constitutional Assembly “composed primarily of representatives in favor of a developed Commonwealth,” another term for “enhanced commonwealth.”
The document specifies the “continuance of the benefits of our current relationship with the United States, including American citizenship, fiscal autonomy, free travel to the United States, common currency, common market, acquired benefits such as Social Security, and benefits acquired through specific capacities (federal jobs, veterans, etc).” Later, it specifies permanent U.S. citizenship and “equal treatment and particip[ation for Puerto Rico in all federal programs applicable to American citizens.”
At the same time, it also wants the ability to “establish commercial and fiscal treaties with other countries.” It also declares that Puerto Rico is in charge of its own government, except for powers it specifically delegates to the United States. The “Pact of the Future” specifically announces that Puerto Rico will make its own laws for maritime matters, electoral law, and all local laws. It wants to be able to pick and choose among U.S. federal laws.
This, the pact says, “is not a change in status, but rather a natural development of the Commonwealth in accordance to the political and economic realities of the 21st Century.”
Have times changed?
This status option was offered to Puerto Rican voters years ago. Since the time that Representative Miller (D-CA) explained the problem with offering “make believe” promises to the people of Puerto Rico, Congress has only taken away Puerto Rico’s sense of autonomy by enacting PROMESA legislation, and the Supreme Court has confirmed the island’s territorial status in Sanchez Valle.
Updated February 10, 2021