"CLARIFYING COMMONWEALTH, PLEBISCITE AND REFERENDUM"
THE SAN JUAN STAR, AUGUST 18, 1998
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In my August 6 column, I pointed out that the status legislation already approved in the U.S. House of Representatives and presently under the consideration of the U.S. Senate provides for a status referendum to be held in Puerto Rico and not a plebiscite. I touched briefly on the difference between "plebiscite" and "referendum." Several readers have requested of me to expand on these differences, and I am pleased to do so in this column. I am taking this opportunity to clarify the term "commonwealth," the present political status of Puerto Rico to which some political sectors give a juridical significance that it does not have. Let's start with "commonwealth."
The term "commonwealth" was originally used in relation to a group of persons banded together for a common good or public welfare. The term is frequently used when referring to a state, a group of states or nations. Australia, for example, is made up of several states and the official name of that nation is The Commonwealth of Australia. There is also a Commonwealth of Nations, which is an association of some 40 independent nations that at one point in time were under British rule.
In the United States, some states use the title "commonwealth." So, we have the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. But it is just a title that has no juridical significance.
In the case of Puerto Rico, it must be noted that the name "commonwealth" for our present political status has no juridical value or international recognition. It came into acceptance after Puerto Rico's Constitutional Convention on February 4, 1952. Resolution No. 22 was approved establishing that "commonwealth" was the most convenient translation for "Estado Libre Asociado" because "Free Associated State" had juridical implication that was unacceptable to the U.S. Congress.
With respect to the terms "plebiscite" and "referendum," the following is my perception. I agree with most authorities who say there is a difference between a "plebiscite" and a "referendum." Both constitute a process in which the people are consulted on a particular issue. In the case of a referendum, the results are not necessarily binding and conclusive, as is in the case of the results of a plebiscite. Most authorities are also in agreement that a plebiscite has a higher rank than a referendum because the will of the people in a plebiscite is final and its results have conclusive effects, primarily on issues concerning changes in the sovereignty of a country, territory or dependency.
It has been further pointed out that successful plebiscites must be based on some agreement to which both of the contending countries or territories are parties (in our case, the United States and Puerto Rico). These conditions and terms of the plebiscite should be, of course, specifically and clearly spelled out in order to prevent subsequent disagreements and misunderstandings.
It must be recalled that the Young Status Bill passed this year by the U.S. House of Representatives and the bill now before the consideration of the U.S. Senate refer to a "status referendum" and not a "status plebiscite." This is so because the winning status formula in a referendum is still subject to discussions and negotiations with the U.S. Congress, particularly when petitions and concessions are expected from the United States. Whatever is agreed upon will then be subject to the approval of the people of Puerto Rico in a "plebiscite," the results of which will be then conclusive and final.
I hope we in Puerto Rico keep the above in mind when using the terms "plebiscite" and "referendum." I specifically have in mind now the status consultation bill presently before the consideration of our Legislature, which is being erroneously referred to as a "status plebiscite," instead of a "status referendum" to be held on December 13 this year. The same error was and continues to be committed when reference is made to the November 1993 "plebiscite" in Puerto Rico, when it was actually a "referendum."
I wish to point out before concluding that some authorities are extremely strict about the use of the terms "plebiscite" and "referendum" processes. They say that when more than one option is included, the term to be used should be "consultation," because in the case of a "plebiscite" or "referendum," the vote is "yes" or "no" on the sole option submitted for the consideration of the people.
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