The U.S. Department of State today said that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans want to resolve the question of its ultimate status, and a majority of Puerto Ricans chose statehood as the alternative to territory status in a 2012 plebiscite.
The statements reaffirmed Federal positions on Puerto Rico’s status not accepted by the “Commonwealth” party insular government administration narrow elected at the same time of the plebiscite.
The statements were made in response to questions about expressions this week by the presidents of Venezuela and Cuba. Venezuelan Nicolas Maduro and Cuban Raul Castro reiterated their government’s calls for Puerto Rico’s independence. Maduro also proposed Puerto Rico’s membership in Petrocaribe and the Community of Caribbean and Latin American States (CELAC).
Then Venezuela President Hugo Chavez led the formation of Petrocaribe in 2005. The organization lets its 17 other member nations buy Venezuelan oil on preferential payment terms. It is now exploring other economic cooperation measures.
The U.S. buys more Venezuelan oil than any other nation but has not been invited to join Petrocaribe.
Despite this, “Commonwealth” party Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila explored the possibility of buying oil from Venezuela in 2005. Puerto Rico uses imported oil to make 69% of its electricity, and oil price increases that began four decades ago have led to extremely high electricity rates, a major drag on the territory’s economy.
The administration of current Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has said that it is not interested in joining CELAC — but it has not ruled out membership in Petrocaribe. The U.S. is also excluded from CELAC, a 33-country group formed in Venezuela in 2011 with a political agenda.
Garcia and some other “Commonwealth” party leaders have tried to deny that Puerto Rico is subject to the broad authority over territories that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress — although the Governor has also acknowledged the fact when pressed.
One of their arguments for not recognizing the 2012 plebiscite results is that its current status option was defined as “territorial”. Garcia and others supported the current status option, which was rejected by 54% of the vote.
These ‘commonwealthers’ suggest that Puerto Rico is a “Commonwealth” but not a territory.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Puerto Rico is subject to Congress’ Territory Clause authority, and President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status has reported that it will continue to be under any “Commonwealth” arrangement. This explanation echoed reports by previous Federal administrations and congressional committees. The State Department has previously maintained that Puerto Rico is a territory.
Garcia and other ‘commonwealthers’ also claim that a majority of Puerto Ricans support the current status despite the 2012 plebiscite and past plebiscite results.
Consistent with this, Garcia and the post-2012 “Commonwealth” party majority in Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly dispute that statehood won a majority of the 2012 plebiscite vote. Puerto Rico’s tripartisan Elections Commission, however, determined that statehood won 61.2% of the vote among the alternatives to territory status but the ‘commonwealthers’ assert that it did not. They claim that ballots without votes should be counted in the percentage results, contrary to Puerto Rico Supreme Court rulings.
The independence called for by Maduro and Castro received 4.5% of the vote. Nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end was chosen by 33.3%.
The State Department statement on the 2012 plebiscite results was identical to the statement of President Obama’s spokesman after the plebiscite, a vote that the White House supported.
In addition, 130 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have sponsored legislation recognizing the statehood choice. Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government and U.S. House member with a vote only in committees is the lead sponsor of the bill. Pedro Pierluisi was the highest vote getter in the 2012 elections and heads the territory’s statehood party.
The primary objection of ‘commonwealthers’ to the 2012 plebiscite, however, is that it did not include their “Development of the Commonwealth” proposal. Under the proposal, Puerto Rico would be empowered to enter into international organizations and agreements as if it were a sovereign nation as well as empowered to nullify Federal laws and court jurisdiction. It would, additionally, continue to receive new and existing U.S. benefits. And the U.S. would not be able to change any of these provisions.
In its statement today, the U.S. State Department noted that, “Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the Federal government is responsible for the foreign relations of Puerto Rico, including decisions related to its membership or other participation in international organizations.”
Less than two weeks ago, Federal legislation for a plebiscite on options that would “resolve” the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status was enacted into law. The options could be U.S. statehood, independence, and nationhood in a non-binding association with the U.S.
Territory status, whether called that or “Commonwealth” could not be an option because it is an undemocratic status that cannot resolve the issue. Puerto Ricans will still have the right to petition for statehood or nationhood as long as Puerto Rico is a territory.
Proposals for the plebiscite’s options would be made by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission but would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice as not conflicting with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
The Justice Department approval requirement was included to ensure that impossible proposals, like the “Commonwealth” party’s “Commonwealth” proposal, are not included.
President Obama proposed the new plebiscite because of the opposition of Garcia and the “Commonwealth” party majorities in Puerto Rico’s legislature to Federal action on the 2012 plebiscite results. It threatened to lead to congressional inaction on the self-determination decision of Puerto Ricans. A plebiscite under Federal auspices would be harder to dispute.