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Why the ‘Commonwealth’ Party Wants an Assembly to Pick the Territory’s Status

Puerto Rico “Commonwealth” party leaders yesterday reiterated their pledge to call a “constitutional assembly” (often also referred to as a “constituent assembly”) on the territory’s status next year if the Federal government does not act on the status issue this year.

A party convention ratified a resolution presented by Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla.  It repeats a promise in the party’s 2012 elections platform.

The resolution opposes a status solution that would compromise “Puerto Rican nationality or impair our linguistic and cultural identity.”  The language was intended as an attack on U.S. statehood, the status that won the territory’s plebiscite on the issue held along with the elections, although statehood would not affect the cultural identity of Puerto Ricans.

There are 1.5 million residents of the States who were born in Puerto Rico and 4.9 million people of Puerto Rican heritage in the States — and the “Commonwealth” party considers them to be “Puerto Rican.”

Garcia refused to include language in the resolution saying that the status selected by the assembly had to be “non-colonial and non-territorial.”

Leaders of the party’s national sovereignty wing had pressed for that — and some, including Garcia’s failed 2012 running mate for Congress and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin were vocally disappointed in Garcia’s decision.

The decision was curious since one of Garcia’s main complaints about the 2012 plebiscite is that it defined the islands’ current status as “territorial” and he alternatively says that Puerto Rico is not a territory or he does not want it to be.

Authorities in all three branches of the Federal government, however, have repeatedly said that Puerto Rico is subject to Congress’ power to govern territories and will be unless it becomes a State or a nation.  President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, for example, reported in 2011 that the islands would remain subject to that power under any “Commonwealth” arrangement.

The resolution might also seem curious since Garcia has repeatedly said that he supports President Obama’s proposal for a plebiscite under Federal auspices and the proposal has passed the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

Obama made the proposal because Garcia and the “Commonwealth” party majority in both houses of Puerto Rico’s legislature dispute the results as well as the fairness of last year’s plebiscite.  The White House supported the plebiscite and embraced its results but recognized that criticism by Puerto Rico’s insular government would make it difficult to pass legislation on the results in Congress.

The plebiscite rejected Puerto Rico’s current status by 54% despite support for that option by the “Commonwealth” party and chose statehood among the possible alternatives by 61.2%.  Nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end obtained 33.3% and independence 5.5%.

In addition to objecting to the plebiscite because it termed Puerto Rico’s current status as territorial, the “Commonwealth” party also argues that its proposed “Commonwealth status” should have been an option — even though Federal Executive and congressional officials have said since the proposal was made during the Clinton Administration that it is impossible for constitutional and other reasons.

And this gets to the party’s reasons for an assembly to choose the islands’ status instead of a plebiscite, which would be more democratic because the status choice would be made by the people directly.

The  party would have the same objections to a Federal plebiscite that it does to Puerto Rico’s plebiscite last year: a current status option, if included, would have to be a territory option and the proposed “Commonwealth status” could not be an option.

Under the “Commonwealth status” proposal, the U.S. would be permanently bound to an arrangement under which Puerto Rico could nullify Federal laws and court jurisdiction and enter into international agreements and organizations as if it were a nation.  The U.S. would also have to grant the islands a new subsidy and continue granting all current assistance to Puerto Ricans and U.S. citizenship.

The party also fears that statehood would win a bigger victory if Congress authorizes a plebiscite including it.  This is because one of the party’s main  arguments against statehood is that a bigoted U.S. would not accept Puerto Rico as a State.

Yesterday’s resolution continues the party’s efforts to divide Puerto Ricans from other Americans by saying that a status chosen in the assembly could not compromise “Puerto Rican nationality or impair our linguistic and cultural identity.”

The idea of a “constituent assembly” originated with nationalists who believe that the U.S. has no right to govern the islands.  They assert that the U.S. should transfer power over Puerto Rico to such an assembly.

“Commonwealth” party leaders seized upon the idea a decade ago after Federal officials made it clear that their “Commonwealth status” proposal should not be included in a plebiscite.

Calculating that statehood would win a plurality in a plebiscite, they hoped to cobble together a majority of delegates in an assembly for their status proposal by forming a coalition with independence advocates anxious to stop statehood, which has been gaining in support.

The ‘commonwealthers’  thought that such a deal would be possible in the ‘back room’ of an assembly.  It would not be possible in a plebiscite in which the Independence Party would urge votes for independence.

To ensure that statehood would be limited to a plurality, the “Commonwealth” party leaders also planned to have some assembly seats reserved for representatives of civic organizations dominated by ‘commonwealthers’ and other nationalists.

“Commonwealth” party leaders also hoped that the Federal government would be forced to agree to a status proposal from an assembly because it would be “the self-determination will’ of the people of Puerto Rico — despite Federal officials saying that Congress does not have the power to permanently agree to the new “Commonwealth status” proposal as well as that it should not agree for policy and structure of government reasons.

This strategy of trying to embarass the Federal government into agreeing to the proposal is one of the reasons that the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have proposed a federally authorized plebiscite.

Gov. Garcia Saturday erroneously suggested that the purpose of the assembly would be similar to Puerto Rico’s constitutional convention.  The convention, however, drafted a charter for the local government within the territory’s existing status — as Federal Executive and congressional officials made clear in authorizing the convention that it would have to.

A status assembly, by contrast, would pick a status and U.S. relationship. The type of convention that drafted Puerto Rico’s territorial constitution would still need to be held after a new status and U.S. relationship, if any, are agreed to by the Federal government.

President Obama’s proposal for another plebiscite is not the only Puerto Rico status legislation being seriously considered in Congress. Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government and statehood party president, Pedro Pierluisi, and 119 other members of the U.S. House have sponsored a bill to require a presidential statehood transition legislation if the status wins another plebiscite.

The proposal is not incompatible with Obama’s.



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