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There Is No “Commonwealth” Solution

In a blog post in The Hill, a newspaper for the congressional community, former San Juan Mayor Hernán Padilla, president of a group seeking equality for Puerto Ricans, re-examined Puerto Rico’s 2012 plebiscite on the territory’s political status. In the vote, the people of Puerto Rico rejected territory status and chose statehood among the alternatives.

Puerto Rico’s government administration, narrowly elected the same day, has refused to accept the plebiscite’s self-determination decision. Padilla explained why:

The root of the argument against the November 2012 plebiscite can be traced directly to the Popular Democratic Party’s (PDP) governing board resolution, dated February 11, 2012 … It wrongly asserts that the current “Commonwealth” status was not in the ballot, because in the PDP’s view, “the Commonwealth is not and should not be subject to the plenary powers of the U.S. Congress.”

In comments on the post, a reader asserted that Puerto Rico has a “Commonwealth” relationship with the U.S. and it is like the union between England and Scotland.  The relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. is, in fact, that of a territory and the nation that owns it. Puerto Rico is subject to the plenary powers of the U.S. Congress, and will continue to be until Puerto Rico becomes a State or a nation. There is no similarity to the union between England and Scotland.

Padilla examined another objection to the results of the 2012 vote: the “Commonwealth” party’s “Development of the Commonwealth” proposal was not on the ballot. As U.S. Government officials have stated over and over through the years, most recently in the form of a letter from the leaders of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, any “enhanced Commonwealth” is not a possible status option. It cannot be implemented by Congress because on Congress cannot give up the powers of a future Congress without making the territory a State or a nation. Putting a proposal that cannot be a reality on the ballot is  a waste of time and resources and unfair to voters.

Padilla also addressed a third argument for the refusal to respect the 2012 vote: there were blank ballots on the question of the alternative to territory status. Supporters of the idea of a “Developed Commonwealth” status have claimed that ballots without votes on the alternative should be counted in the percentage breakdown of the results for the question, contrary to determinations of Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission and Supreme Court.  As Padilla points out, “[O]ur electoral statute in Puerto Rico establishes that blank votes are not valid and should not be counted in favor of any candidate or proposal. Secondly, both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Puerto Rico Supreme Court have upheld that … should not be credited for any position or candidate or even taken into consideration in any determination of a majority.”

The 2012 vote underscored that the people of Puerto Rico are not satisfied with the current status, and the vote against continuing as a territory should be respected.

The fly in the ointment is the insistence of Puerto Rico’s current administration that its “Development of the Commonwealth” proposal be an option in a status choice process, although U.S. Government officials have repeatedly said that it cannot be agreed to by the Federal government.

Some comments on Padilla’s post called for the U.S. to “sit down and negotiate” a new “Commonwealth” status but, as President Obama’s Task Force has reported, Puerto Rico would remain subject to Congress’ territory governing authority under any “Commonwealth” arrangement.

While proponents of the “Development of the Commonwealth” wait for Federal officials to change their uniform and consistent understanding of the U.S. Constitution, Puerto Rico continues to suffer the negative consequences of being a territory, even though its people have voted against the status.

The leaders of the U.S. Senate committee responsible for the status of territories recently reiterated that any proposal similar to the “Development of the Commonwealth” proposal is a “non-viable” scheme that should not be considered by Puerto Ricans. It is time to accept that fact and move forward.

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