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U.S. Senate Chairman Reiterates: No ‘Commonwealth’ Solution to Status Issue

There is no “Commonwealth” solution to Puerto Rico’s status issue the chairman of the U.S. Senate committee with jurisdiction over the status of territories reiterated in an interview published Sunday.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden had made the same point in an August 1st committee hearing.

By reiterating the point, Wyden contradicted Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla (“Commonwealth” party) who a week ago suggested that the Oregon Democrat had stepped back from his hearing statements during a meeting the day afterwards.

In restating the point, Wyden also demonstrated that he was not intimidated by the charge of Garcia’s top “Commonwealth” party deputy that the senator had made the hearing statements in return for campaign contributions.

Senator Jorge Suarez, the party Secretary General under President Garcia Padilla, days after the hearing made the Wyden corruption claim, citing donations from two sources.

One was a small group of individuals associated with a major Puerto Rico hospital.

But the leader of the group is a “Commonwealth” party member who has solely lobbied members of Congress for equality for Puerto Rico’s hospitals in the Medicare program.  And Wyden is also the second most senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare.

The other group of campaign contributors consists of lawyers in a large national law firm that lobbies Wyden on tax, energy, and Native American as well as Puerto Rico issues.

Wyden noted that Puerto Rico’s current territory status, sometimes misleadingly called “Commonwealth,” was “rejected last November … a majority of voters in Puerto Rico – 54% – expressed clear opposition to continuing the current territorial status.”

He referred to a plebiscite in the territory that also chose statehood among the possible alternatives to the islands’ current status by 61.2%.

“Commonwealth” cannot be considered the islands’ ultimate political status because it does not permit Puerto Ricans having voting representation on the government that makes their national laws and Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens in a U.S. territory, will have the right to petition for statehood or nationhood as long as it continues.

And “Insisting on supporting the [“Commonwealth” party’s] improved ‘Commonwealth’ proposal after it was rejected by the United States as inconsistent with the Constitution undermines a solution to the status debate” Wyden told El Nuevo Dia newspaper.

The proposal would permanently bind the U.S. to Puerto Rico and to an arrangement under which the islands would determine the application of Federal laws and Federal court jurisdiction and be able to enter into international agreements and organizations as if Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation.

“The best way to resolve the status debate” the U.S. Senate committee chairman said is through “a plebiscite between the two fundamental status options: statehood or separate sovereignty — whether through independence or free association [nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end].”

He emphasized that he supports President Obama’s legislation to fund another plebiscite in Puerto Rico on options proposed by the territory to the extent that the U.S. Justice Department agrees the proposals do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.

The legislation has been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

He did not, however, take a position on the bill sponsored in the House by Puerto Rico’s representatives to the Federal government, statehood party president Pedro Pierluisi, and 119 other House members for a plebiscite on statehood.

Wyden did, though, dismiss the claims of statehood opponents that equal treatment under law for Puerto Rico in the nation would require the exclusive use of English by the Government of Puerto Rico:  “There are no language requirements for States, so officers can conduct business in the language of their choice. I think Louisiana conducted operations in French for many years. New Mexico was bilingual for much of its history. And today Hawaii is officially bilingual.”

And he said it was “not proper to compare” the statehood petitions of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia because Puerto Rico is a territory, “[t]here is a path established under the Constitution for territories to become States” and “[t]he District of Columbia is not a territory.”

The territories committee chairman additionally shot down the idea of some Puerto Rican advocates of nationhood in a free association with the U.S. that U.S. citizenship would continue to be granted under the association.  “[A] common citizenship is incompatible with having a separate sovereignty,” Wyden pointed out.

But he noted that “[t]he compacts between the U.S. and the three Pacific nations in free association with the United States exempt” islanders from having to obtain visas or permits for entering and working in the U.S., suggesting that citizens of a freely associated nation of Puerto Rico would be able to travel to and work in the States with out the restrictions that apply to citizens of completely foreign nations.

Click here for a link to the Senate hearing’s archived webcast, witness testimony and opening statements.


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