Who is in Charge? It’s the U.S. Congress

“There is no doubt that Puerto Rico is, and has been, nothing other than an unincorporated territory under the plenary powers of Congress,” Andres Cordova recently wrote in an opinion piece published in The Hill.

This reality creates tension for presidential candidates, who often say that they will support self-determination for Puerto Rico, or stated less formally, “whatever the people of Puerto Rico want.”

“To argue that the ultimate decision on Puerto Rico’s political future rests with the American citizens in Puerto Rico conveniently ignores that it is Congress who has jurisdiction and responsibility for the territory of Puerto Rico,” he explained. “As the Supreme Court made abundantly clear in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle (2016), Puerto Rico lacks original sovereignty under our Constitution and depends on congressional leadership to solve the status question.”

In the 2016 presidential campaign, and already in the run-up to the 2020 campaign, one candidate after another made some variation on the statement, “I will support the status choice of the voters of Puerto Rico.” But it is Congress that has the power.

Both national party platforms include statements on Puerto Rico. But, as Cordova points out, those platforms don’t lead to action.

“The Democratic Party included in its 2016 platform that it believes ‘that the people of Puerto Rico should determine their ultimate political status from permanent options that do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States,’” wrote Cordova. “The Republican Party declared that it supported ‘the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state’ and recognized the historic significance of the 2012 local referendum in which statehood prevailed.”

He went on to say, “With some notable exceptions, once in Congress most politicians choose to ignore their party’s platform commitments, failing to legislate either a statehood admission bill, a ‘statehood yes or no’ plebiscite or any other process.”

Cordova, in common with many Puerto Rico leaders, is frustrated by the lack of action.

“It is not enough to come to Puerto Rico and make generic statements of support for self-determination and make rhetorical flourishes on the cruelty of the federal government on its handling of the debt crisis and hurricane recuperation efforts…To argue that the ultimate decision on Puerto Rico’s political future rests with the American citizens in Puerto Rico conveniently ignores that it is Congress who has jurisdiction and responsibility for the territory of Puerto Rico. As the Supreme Court made abundantly clear in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle (2016), Puerto Rico lacks original sovereignty under our Constitution and depends on congressional leadership to solve the status question,” Cordova wrote. “To expect a consensus on this matter is naive at best, and Machiavellian at worst. Any politician that claims to favor whatever the people of Puerto Rico decide, while failing to take specific actions to address the issue, is just kicking the can down the road for personal political advantage.”

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