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Puerto Rico: Unfinished Business Of American Democracy

By Pedro Rossello, MD, MPH

March 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001. All Rights Reserved.

For me this is an important occasion, an opportunity to discuss a theme I feel passionate about. And yet, as I commenced the solitary task of writing down the thoughts that I would share with you today, I had to ask myself whether our dialogue here could possibly have any lasting impact. I had to wonder if these remarks could possibly stand out and somehow be remembered, when so many legendary figures have uttered so many immortal words, over so many hundreds of years, at so many critical moments, in this political capital of the world.

And so it was, as I commenced the solitary task of composing this address, that the lyrics to a song kept running through my head. A song by the Beatles. One of their many uniquely wonderful songs. A song about an obscure spinster, Eleanor Rigby, who dies and is "buried alone with her name".

Referring to preparations for Ms. Rigby’s bleak funeral at a deserted cemetery, the Beatles painted a poignant portrait of "Father Mackenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear".

It was those lyrics that made the connection for me between this occasion here at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and a classic work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While reflecting on those lyrics, I realized that we would be looking back over "Cien Años De Soledad", 100 years of solitude.

More than four full centuries after Christopher Columbus laid claim to it on behalf of their royal majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico was struggling gamely for subsistence, engulfed in obscurity, when very suddenly, 102 years ago the United States battleship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. That catastrophic event triggered a conflict that brought Puerto Rico under U.S. sovereignty, as a result of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which ended the Spanish American war.

Two years after the end of that "splendid little war" the military regime that the occupying forces established, gave way to a civil government under the aegis of the U.S. Constitution, and a century of solitude began for Puerto Rico. ...Cien Años de Soledad.

During his century of stewardship over Puerto Rico, Uncle Sam has been at times generous but often a clumsy patron. His interest and his attention span have fluctuated wildly. Overall, Uncle Sam has been infinitely more supportive of our aspirations as a people than Mother Spain ever was. Be that as it may, with the centennial of the Spanish-American war now several years past the people of Puerto Rico do remain disenfranchised stepchildren within the great American family.

Only now and then are we unconditionally anointed as peers. Only now and then, such as when there is blood to be shed in the national defense.

Throughout this past century, Puerto Ricans have sustained combat casualties in America’s wars in numbers that far exceed our share of the population. When there is blood to be shed, then we are abruptly "liberated" from "stepchild" obscurity and are thrust into the thick of the conflict. And sadly, this sort of thing has been going on now for so long- decade after decade after decade- that any former governor of Puerto Rico could perhaps be forgiven if he were tempted to conclude that one more speech on this topic could hardly make much difference.

But I am an optimist by nature.

I would never have considered accepting the gracious invitation of this prestigious institution if I did not truly believe that a date with destiny is indeed closer than ever for the nearly four million people of Puerto Rico.

The issues are complex. The historical baggage is heavy. Opinions on the subject are many, varied and passionately held.

My personal views are no secret. However, after putting myself in the shoes of the Beatles’ "Father MacKenzie", I have emerged from prayerful solitude and come to a serene conclusion. I have come to the conclusion that the most useful contribution I can make, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is to resist the temptation to convert this forum into the setting for a single-minded soliloquy on the superiority of statehood.

My goal today is to try to speak for every Puerto Rican with respect to our collective aspiration to forge a final democratic solution to the centuries-old quandary surrounding Puerto Rico’s political indefinition.

Because I truly believe that Puerto Rico’s date with destiny is imminent, I want to examine with you the tapestry upon which that destiny is being woven–on countless looms in countless venues, even as you and I discuss it among ourselves.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the process of self-determination for its territories is within the province and responsibility of Congress. The power and authority for determining Puerto Rico’s political status is vested totally in the Congress, by virtue of the Territorial Clause, Article IV, Section 3,Clause 2.

However from 1898 forward, Congress has repeatedly finessed this issue. It has done so in numerous ways, dating all the way to 1900. In that year, when we held our first election under American sovereignty, both of Puerto Rico’s principal political parties clamored for U.S. statehood; but when their petitions reached the halls of power in our Nation’s Capital they were met only with mumbled platitudes about "manana."

Since then, the Federal Government "finesse" has walked a fine line between the appearance of a process in progress and the elusive final resolution.

In 1917, Congress exercised its powers under its Territorial Clause of the Constitution to grant U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. In 1950 Congress prescribed a procedure for the internal self-government of Puerto Rico without altering Puerto Rico’s fundamental territorial relationship with the U.S. . In 1952 Congress, by delegation of its plenary powers, ratified the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The so-called "Commonwealth" of Puerto Rico was purely and simply a sham: a diplomatic public relations gimmick that provided Uncle Sam with a fig leaf for escaping over-embarrassment whenever self-determination issues arose at the United Nations. No less an authority than the Honorable Jose Trias Monge declared as we approached the centennial of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico that it is "undeniable and lamentable" that Puerto Rico remains under commonwealth status, in a colonial condition.

Under the Territorial Clause, the Supreme Court has made parts of the constitution applicable to Puerto Rico. In 1953 the U.S. notified the United Nations that it would no longer transmit information regarding Puerto Rico pursuant to Article 73(e) of its Charter.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v.Rosario, (1980) that Congress continues to exercise authority over Puerto Rico as a territory "belonging" to the United States.

In January 1989 all political parties in Puerto Rico petitioned that the people of Puerto Rico be consulted as to their preference with regards to their ultimate political status. No such consultation has ever been formally carried out since 1898. ???On November 1993, the Government of Puerto Rico conducted a plebiscite under local law, where none of the three status propositions received an absolute majority of votes. On December 1998 the Government of Puerto Rico conducted another plebiscite under local law where none of the four status propositions received a majority of votes.

Let me restate that under the Territorial Clause of the Constitution Congress still retains the authority and has the responsibility to determine federal policy on status to resolve this issue.

As you can distill from this brief history, Puerto Rico has been a political entity for approximately five centuries. In all of that time, It has never ever been a sovereign entity. As a "body politic", Puerto Rico is thus burdened with five centuries of inertia. Few informed observers would quarrel with former Chief Justice Trias-Monge"s assertion that Puerto Rico is the "oldest colony in the world". The impact of "colonial inertia" has again and again been manifested in the following manner: "colonial inertia" effectively stymies the evolution of any consensus among the Puerto Rican people concerning a permanent solution to our status dilemma. Again and again, inertia has fomented indecision. And, invariably, that inertia has been perpetuated and exacerbated by doubt and uncertainty over what exactly would be the terms under which a permanent status solution would be implemented.

So where do we stand today, after more than a century of solitude? ... We stand as a territory of the United States, disenfranchised and under the plenary and sovereign powers of Congress.

A century in our history should be cause for celebration, but this is a sad centennial to have commemorated, because Puerto Rico still has the painful distinction of having subsisted longer (over five hundred years) , with the largest population, than any other community on Earth without ever having exercised or enjoyed any form of true political sovereignty. Ever.

We the People of Puerto Rico have been involved in a long and laborious struggle for self-determination, almost as long as that of Hawaii, which struggled for statehood from 1853,when King Kamehameha III ordered his foreign minister to begin negotiations, to 1959, when it became the 50th state of the Union. And we are fast approaching Oklahoma’s record territorial period of 104 years before becoming a state.

Thirty-seven times since the original 13 colonies founded this republic a thorough public examination has taken place, as one territory after another labored through its own process of self-determination. As we the People of Puerto Rico come under that scrutiny, we are aware that the issues and concerns being raised with respect to our own efforts are nor all new; issues concerning the economic impact of our status choices, the place of our language and culture within the diversity of our nation, and the ramifications of a change on the current political balance of our national parties; issues that were raised and resolved in the discussions surrounding virtually every other territory that faced the critical juncture that is now before us.

We cannot minimize the obstacles to final resolution of this struggle...Least of them the implications to party balance, particularly in these times of nearly half-and-half divide in Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was asked: "Is the only reason you are opposed to Puerto Rican statehood, two Democratic Senators?" He replied," No that is not the only reason. It is also six Democratic Representatives".

Throughout American history, the struggle for recognition of democratic rights has rarely been easy. So we Puerto Ricans are not discouraged in the slightest by the obstacles we encounter along our rocky road to civic equality.

On the other hand, neither do we take those obstacles lightly. One way to describe our attitude might be this:

"We must cut this territory stunt. We have had to much hot atmosphere, soothing syrup, and other poor nourishment... from Uncle Sam. What we want now is a Statehood sandwich, buttered on both sides ".

"This chance may not come again in the life of the present generation. ‘A few years will make no difference,’Say those who oppose us. Such persons either know nothing or care nothing about the history of the statehood fight. It has been the longest struggle; years and years of evasion, attack and neglect by Congress.

"The only opposition remaining exists under the leadership of an itinerant demagogue who secretly sends lying telegrams to Washington and who occupies the evenings informing us that our women carry on the practices of saloon bums; that our boys and girls are going to hell; that bartenders have given us our Constitution."

That might be one way to describe our attitude. Interestingly enough, though, those words are not mine. Nor are they the words or any other Puerto Rican instead, the words I just read you are direct quotes from the Albuquerque Morning Journal. Those words were published in January 1911, during the climactic final months of a 62-year crusade for New Mexico statehood.

Fortunately, we have the opportunity, together–the Federal Government and our people–to bring an end to half-a-millennium of ignominious political inferiority: Four centuries under a Spanish Monarch and now one full century under the greatest democracy ever created by the human race, a democracy that should find it untenable and repulsive to keep a large number of its citizens bereft of their basic citizenship rights.

I believe today, we have the opportunity to tackle this unfinished business of American democracy.

What are the consequences of this century of solitude, of this unfinished business of American democracy, of the perennial disenfranchisement of a community of nearly 4 million U.S. citizens, since 1917?

The symptoms of this malady are all too obvious. They surface periodically, as with a spiking fever, reminding us that the illness still persists. It comes to the fore when the President grants clemency to a group of Puerto Rican nationalists (terrorists) for crimes committed in the name of their own vision for our island. It surfaces when a small community of 9,300 U.S. citizens in the tiny island of Vieques demand (powerlessly) that Navy military exercises be terminated after 60 years of bombing. On this, former President Clinton observed that we would probably no have a Vieques issue, if we had resolved the status issue. Remember that Puerto Rico has been granted the exercise of self-government in local affairs. But Military activity is not a local affair. It is a national government decision. And Puerto Rico does not have vote in their national government.

A keen student of the Puerto Rican status issue summarizes the situation thusly: "Puerto Rico does not exercise sovereignty on national government matters such as military decision. It is the President’s strong feeling, and mine that if the people of Puerto Rico want national sovereignty–and thus military powers–they should have it. They also ought to participate in national decisions within the government of the U.S. if they want to. But, at present, Puerto Ricans have chosen neither status. The Vieques issue helps point us to the need to resolve the status issue."

Another underlying symptom of America’s unfinished business of democracy is the long-standing disenfranchisement of American citizens. American history chronicles the gradual enfranchisement of large segments of its society: non-landowners, blacks, women, and citizens living abroad. These did not have their voting rights recognized from the beginnings of the Republic. There has been a slow, painful, but relentless drive to have the most basic of democratic rights recognized, not granted... recognized, to all. Today Puerto Rico and its nearly 4 million U.S. citizens represent the last frontier of this historical march. The non-recognition of this most fundamental right in a democracy to participate by voting in the election of its leaders, in our case the President and the Vice-President is a flagrant injustice. When as a result of the recent presidential election of 2000, we are still debating the "de facto" disenfranchisement of groups in Florida and elsewhere, we still refuse to face the " de jure" disenfranchisement in Puerto Rico.

Two cases were filed in 2000 to address the lack of voting rights in Puerto Rico : One by a voter living on the island (Igartua De la Rosa v. United States of America), and another by a voter seeking an absentee ballot from his previous state of residence (Romeu v. Cohen) .

The judge hearing the first of these cases in the Federal District Court, concluded that the voting right of U.S. citizens is inherent to its citizenship and not merely derived from Article II of the Constitution, and superior to any procedural requirements. In support of his conclusions, Judge Pieras writes:"Like United States citizens residing in the District of Columbia and the 50 states, those residing in Puerto Rico have fulfilled the highest calling of citizenship, fighting and dying in the battlefields in two world wars, the Korean,Vietnam and Gulf wars. Still, despite paying for their citizenship with blood, U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico have not entered the Presidential ballot box. It is inconceivable to our constitutional order to expect that the government can place our nation’s sons and daughters in harm’s way and not recognize the power of those individuals to have a say in electing those who will make that decision. It is no less preposterous that the United States can fight for the freedom of others abroad and ignore the lack of liberty of citizens at home".

On appeal to the First Circuit, Judge Pieras was reversed. Chief Judge Torruellas, who many years before characterized U.S. policy towards Puerto Rico as that of "separate and unequal", felt compelled to join the majority, but wrote a revealing concurring opinion on the relevant issue of disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico :

"Although it is not the case, nor perhaps the time, for a Federal Court to take remedial action to correct what is a patently intolerable situation, it is time to serve notice upon the political branches of government that it is incumbent upon them, in the first instance to take appropriate steps to correct what amounts to an outrageous disregard for the rights of a substantial segment of its citizenry. A failure to do so countenances corrective judicial action. It may be that the Federal Courts will be required to take extraordinary measures as necessary to protect discrete groups ‘completely under the sovereignty and dominion of the United States’".

The argument for Puerto Rico is simple, yet powerful: The right to vote is granted to the people and not too the states. Denying the right to vote to U.S. citizens who have chosen, implicitly or explicitly, to reside in Puerto Rico establishes an inferior level of U.S. citizenship.

Torruellas words may be a premonition that unless the political branches of the federal government act to redress this flagrant defect of American democracy, the court will have to act to reverse its ruling establishing the doctrine of "separate and unequal", similar to the court’s overruling of the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v.Ferguson in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Another angle of this unfinished business of American democracy is presented by the Romeu v.Cohen case. As a previous resident of New York, Romeu had voted in federal elections. When he moved to Puerto Rico he attempted to vote in the upcoming federal election by absentee ballot, but was denied. Had he moved to Cuba, Iraq, France or Venezuela he would have been able to vote absentee. I f a "black hole" in the universe represents that space where all matter-energy disappears, then Puerto Rico can be characterized as the "democratic black hole" of the U.S.

Although she ruled against Romeu’s claim, U.S. Judge Scheindlin stated in her opinion "While I sympathize with Romeu’s plight and applaud his desire to vote in the 2000 Presidential election, I lack the power to provide him any relief. Only a constitutional amendment or Puerto Rican statehood can provide the cure. All I can do is add my voice to those who have urged the appropriate branches of our government to take all necessary steps to ensure the American citizens residing in all United States tentative be permitted to vote for President and Vice-President as soon as possible."

Thus the unfinished business of American democracy.

There have been attempts at tackling this quandary over the years. Most recently from the federal sphere, an attempt by Congress in 1989-91, to set a federal framework for an informed decision, and a more recent one in 1997-98 to determine valid options to place before the Puerto Rican people. By Puerto Rican initiatives, two locally, though not federally, legislative attempts at decision through referendum or plebiscite in 1993 and 1998. All have ended up in failure.

How to solve this conundrum? In my opinion, the federal government must clarify the valid options available within and without, the US constitution, within the US sovereignty or outside. It is the federal government’s power to do so and therefore its responsibility. The Puerto Rican people must then democratically choose amongst these valid alternatives, petitioning the US government to act upon its expressed will. It is a surprisingly simple concept, but I admit a practical process still fraught with multiple difficulties.

But I am encouraged by the process initiated by President Clinton to clarify options through the deliberations of a group composed of representatives of the Puerto Rican political leadership, the congress and the White House. I hope that this initiative will be continued under President Bush’s administration. By relentlessly pushing the issue and requiring both the federal government and Puerto Rico to fulfill their respective responsibilities, we will enable all to solve this century old issue.

And only then will we conclude America’s unfinished business of democracy.

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