Much has been written about the boycott of the 2017 plebiscite by Puerto Rico’s second-largest political party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD, for its acronym in Spanish). Yet not much is said about the reasons used to justify the boycott in the first place. To answer this question, a chronological review is in order.
This plebiscite was first envisioned in P.S. 51, which would later become Public Law 7, known as the “Immediate Decolonization Law of 2017.” At that time, the plebiscite enjoyed support from the statehood side, as well as an alliance between members of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and pro-sovereignty members of the PPD. Absent was support from the main base of the PPD. The reason for this, they claimed, is that the current status, which they call “Estado Libre Asociado” or “Commonwealth,” was not included.
For some, this was conflicting, since including the current status would go against the whole point of having a “decolonization” plebiscite. Should the current status win, no decolonization would take place. On top of that, the current status was already defeated by the people of Puerto Rico in the polls in November 2012, 54% to 46%. For both the pro-sovereignty alliance and the pro-statehood faction, including the current status was never part of the bill. However, the PPD was adamant about having their option included, resisting the political pressure to pick a side within the non-territorial status options and move away from the current status.
The PPD would soon get its way through the determination of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) after their review of the language of the plebiscite. Since federal legislation assigned $2.5 million to “resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status”, the DOJ had the authority to review the ballot and determine whether it fulfilled the requirements necessary to deserve funding. The DOJ did so and concluded that the ballot must be amended to “include the current territorial status as an option.”
Following this determination, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, was faced with a tough decision—keep the plebiscite as-is, and lose the chance to get the $2.5 million in funding, or include the current status, comply with the DOJ, and make the plebiscite more legitimate by following the federal order. He chose the latter. The Governor included, verbatim, what the DOJ had demanded, the inclusion of the “current territorial status” as an option in the plebiscite. Presumably, the PPD would be ready to play ball, since their only objection was the absence of such an option. This was not the case.
The PPD doubled down on their boycott by stating that the “current territorial status” did not represent what they believe in, which is the “Estado Libre Asociado” or the “Commonwealth.” Furthermore, the pro-sovereignty alliance also decided to boycott since the current status was included.
The conclusion is unambiguous: “Commonwealth” proponents do not appear to believe that Puerto Rico is a territory. But it is painfully clear that Puerto Rico is a territory. This conclusion is well established in decades of federal government statements, made as recently as the April 2017 letter from the Department of Justice.
So what are “Commonwealth” proponents asking for when they say that want “Commonwealth” on the ballot? It is hard to say exactly – the definition has changed over time on Puerto Rico’s past plebiscite ballots. But what’s clear is that Puerto Rico does not have a current “Commonwealth” status – it is a U.S. territory. And the notion that Puerto Rico would ever become this elusive “Commonwealth” has been discredited many times over as unconstitutional and unfeasible. Puerto Rican-born Rep. Jose Serrano has called it “a letter to Santa Claus.” The most recent “Commonwealth” platform, from 1998, is jarring in its mix of unconstitutional and unfeasible propositions, as discussed in depth at a 2000 House of Representatives hearing.
The term “Commonwealth” does not represent a status option, and the U.S. Department of Justice determined that it has no place in a status plebiscite. This term is shared by four U.S. states, one other territory, and three sovereign countries. Furthermore, although the term was applied to Puerto Rico following the passage of the local Constitution on July 25th, 1952, the House Report accompanying Law 600, which allowed Puerto Rico to create its own constitution, stated that the bill “would not change Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relationship to the United States.”
To be effective, a status plebiscite must be confined to viable status options. These are statehood, independence/free association, and the current territorial status.