On Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked several questions related to Puerto Rico at the White House regular news briefing. The inquiries touched on the ongoing fiscal difficulties on the island as well as the degree to which President Obama is committed to resolving the issue of Puerto Rico’s territorial status.
With respect to the fiscal crisis, Earnest emphasized that “the administration has for some time been trying to work with Puerto Rico, and its local leaders, as they confront some of the significant financial challenges that they face.” Recognizing that Puerto Rico is home to more than 3.5 million U.S. citizens, Earnest explained that “the president’s most senior economic advisers have been engaged” and that Department of Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has been closely following the situation.
Earnest was also asked about statements by former Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno that if Puerto Rico were to become a state, it would be a lot easier to resolve its fiscal and economic problems, and that Fortuno had raised this issue with President Obama but that the President is not committed on the issue. The press secretary responded that the White House position “continues to be that this would be a decision for the people of Puerto Rico to make.”
After the 2012 Puerto Rico plebiscite, in which 54% of voters rejected the island’s territorial status and 61% of the voters who chose a new political status for Puerto Rico selected statehood, White House Director of Hispanic Media Luis Miranda issued the following statement: “To clarify, the results were clear, the people of Puerto Rico want the issue of status resolved, and a majority chose statehood in the second question. Now it is time for Congress to act and the Administration will work with them on that effort, so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future.”
Governor Garcia Padilla protested that this vote did not include an option to create an expanded “Commonwealth” for Puerto Rico, a proposal that has routinely been routinely rejected by government officials as unrealistic and unconstitutional. The confusion in Puerto Rico as to what Puerto Rico’s current relationship is with the United States and what possibilities exist for Puerto Rico’s future led to the President to propose – and Congress ultimately enact – a new plebiscite in which the ballot definitions must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice before presented to the people of Puerto Rico.
The federal law funding a new plebiscite passed in January of 2014, but Puerto Rico’s State Elections Commission has yet to submit definitions to the Department of Justice for approval, and there appears to be local confusion over Puerto Rico’s current status. Last month, in testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee in Indian, Insular and Native Alaskan affairs, Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice César R. Miranda Rodríguez testified that Puerto Rico is not a U.S. territory. This statement contradicts the 2011 President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, which notes that “Under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”