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The Hartford Courant

Congressional Roadblocks Delay Puerto Rico’s Future

By Ronald Fernandez

April 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Hartford Courant. All Rights Reserved.

Here was the headline: " Puerto Rico Vote Rejects Statehood." Purporting to know the will of the people, the AP reporter assured readers that the narrow victory of the pro-commonwealth party in the November gubernatorial elections meant that island voters had "put the brakes" on an eight-year drive to achieve statehood.

This is nonsense. Recall the insight of former (pro-statehood) two- term governor and congressional delegate Carlos Romero Barcelo: "The results of the general elections held every four years hinge on a great many issues, most of which have no bearing on the ultimate resolution of Puerto Rico 's status question."

Romero is right, and especially so now.

One issue dominated those elections. It was corruption. Throughout the summer, the island papers headlined virtually nothing else. And anyone listening to the marvelous radio talk shows that are a staple of Puerto Rican life could also hear endless hours of damning denunciations of each political party's pilfering of the public treasury.

Sometimes it seemed like a contest in personal vilification. Thus, if a caller bad-mouthed the pro-commonwealth party, he or she oftenattached a criticism of Gov.-elect Sila Calderon, the pro- commonwealth candidate who had ousted Gov. Pedro Rossello, a supporter of statehood, in November's election. Callers would allege that Calderon's rich husband was a thief, that she helped him steal from the government and that she couldn't smile because that would crack the makeup that hid her age.

Puerto Rican elections are often very personal. Politics rivals baseball as a national pastime.

But in 2000, the island's status issue was far in the background, much further than, for example, the subject of the U.S. naval bombardment of Vieques .

Reporters and politicians who seek simple answers to an exceedingly complex problem do Puerto Ricans -- and the rest of us -- a great disservice when they pontificate about the status desires of the island's nearly 4 million residents.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, knows what the Puerto Rican people ultimately want, because the choice depends on what Congress offers.

Suppose Congress says that Puerto Rico can be a state but that English will be the required medium of instruction in the Puerto Rican school system.

Or suppose Congress says -- and I heard one powerful member of Congress suggest this -- that Puerto Ricans could be independent and retain passport-free access to the United States.

Or, finally, what about the Puerto Ricans in Hartford and Bridgeport and New Britain? Many feel that they should be entitled to vote in any final resolution of the status question. We can't even talk about the supposed will of the Puerto Rican people until we first know whether all Puerto Ricans , or only those who live on the island, will be part of the status selection process.

So why doesn't Congress get off the dime? Article 4, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution explicitly says that Congress shall make "all needful rules and regulations" for any U.S. territory. For 102 years, Congress has repeatedly claimed absolute power over Puerto Rico and its people.

The tragedy is that Congress exercises its power by not exercising its power. Since 1945, Congress has repeatedly refused to provide the specifics of any status option, and it has also refused to accept as binding the democratically expressed will of the Puerto Rican people.

Thus, many thousands of statehood advocates boycotted the nonbinding plebiscite of 1967 and many still angrily remember the sincere efforts of President George Bush in 1990. He pressed Congress to determine the specifics of any status option, and the Senate did so. But the House refused to offer details.

Through the '90s, one status proposal after another foundered on the rocks of congressional unwillingness to risk a binding vote (suppose they selected statehood!) by the Puerto Rican people.

Thus, we enter the new century as we left the last one. On the island, all parties agree that Puerto Rico is a colony, the oldest on Earth. Meanwhile, in Congress legislators applaud the right to self- determination as they simultaneously forget that the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico cannot even vote in federal elections.

It's a congressional contradiction that comes with a clear conclusion: The Puerto Ricans remain, as Congressman Fred Crawford noted in 1949, "our subjects."

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