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The Truth Behind the Boycott over “Commonwealth”

Much has been written about the boycott of the 2017 plebiscite by the Puerto Rico Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which is unrelated to the U.S. Democratic Party. 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 a Puerto Rico law known as the “Immediate Decolonization Law of 2017,” which enjoyed support from proponents of both Puerto Rico sovereignty and Puerto Rico statehood.  The PPD, however, opposed the proposed plebiscite because Puerto Rico’s current territorial status, which they call “Estado Libre Asociado” or “Commonwealth,” was not included.

The law’s proponents pointed out that including the current territorial status would run contrary to the whole point of having a “decolonization” plebiscite.  After all, if the current status were to win, no decolonization would take place.

On top of that, the current territorial status had already been defeated by the people of Puerto Rico in a 2012 plebiscite. For the pro-sovereignty and pro-statehood alliance, including the current status was never contemplated as part of an initiative to bring about reform.

The PPD was adamant about having a “Commonwealth” option included.

The term “Commonwealth” is tricky in Puerto Rico. “Commonwealth” is a term that is used informally to refer to the territory of Puerto Rico, just as the State of Virginia is often called the Commonwealth of Virginia.

In Puerto Rico, however, the term “Commonwealth” has also been used to refer to an aspirational Puerto Rico in which Puerto Rico becomes a sovereign country while retaining the benefits of its current U.S. association, especially U.S. citizenship.  Despite decades of debate, this new type of “commonwealth” – a sovereignty/statehood mix – has never been validated by authorities and has repeatedly been dismissed as an impossible fantasy.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) got involved to review the language of the proposed 2017 plebiscite. Based on 2014 federal legislation that allocated $2.5 million for a local vote 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.”

The U.S. Justice Department did not, however, mandate the inclusion of the mixed sovereignty/statehood concept of “Commonwealth,” which it noted has been “rejected as unconstitutional.”

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 what the DOJ had demanded: the inclusion of the “current territorial status” as an option in the plebiscite.

The PPD then doubled down on its call to supporters to boycott the vote, explaining that the “current territorial status” did not represent what they believe in, which is the “Estado Libre Asociado” or “Commonwealth.”

Pro-sovereignty supporters also decided to boycott the new ballot since the current territorial status of Puerto Rico was included.

This back-and-forth provides clarity on a key point:  “Commonwealth” proponents do not appear to recognize 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 precisely – 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.

Updated on April 16, 2023

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