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Island's Status Still In Question
by Iván Román
June 11, 2001
The one-two punch the federal courts gave Puerto Rico last week added fire to the controversies over the death penalty and the presence of the U.S. Navy, and also laid bare a deeper question.
It once again put on the front pages and is sure to take to higher levels of the courts the contradictions in the island's unique political status.
Stating the U.S. Navy has "sovereign immunity," a federal judge in San Juan unexpectedly ruled Tuesday that the local government had no authority to impose restrictions on the water the Navy draws from a river for its massive base in eastern Puerto Rico.
Hours later, appellate court judges in Boston overturned a local federal judge and ruled that the death penalty must be applied in federal cases on the island despite the Puerto Rico Constitution's prohibition of it.
"We Puerto Ricans don't rule over our water or our lives," said lawyer and political commentator Edgardo Perez Viera, answering questions from a frustrated radio audience. "They have just thrown out the Puerto Ricans' autonomy."
Just how far Puerto Rico's autonomy goes has been in dispute almost since its unique Commonwealth status was established in 1952. The Caribbean island of 3.8?million people governs its own internal and fiscal matters, but the United States controls immigration, customs and defense, and the island is subject to rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, don't pay federal income taxes and don't vote for President. They have no voting members in a Congress that sends them to war, determines how much federal aid they receive and makes laws governing many aspects of their lives.
Because the island is subject to the U.S. Constitution's territorial clause, many experts agree Congress truly governs Puerto Rico's destiny. But many in the governing Popular Democratic Party, the defenders of the Commonwealth status, maintain it's not that simple.
The Commonwealth was created after Congress refused to consider independence or statehood in the 1940s.
Commonwealth emerged as a compromise "in the nature of a compact" between Puerto Rico and the United States, which implies that provisions defining the relationship could only be altered by mutual consent. Congress insisted on approving, and making some amendments to, the Puerto Rico Constitution before it was ratified July 25, 1952. But it didn't touch the Article banning the death penalty. The United States then used the new "pact" to prove to the United Nations the next year that Puerto Rico should be stricken from the list of colonies in the world.
But does the pact really exist? In the intense conflict over whether the Navy should leave Vieques, in the push for parity in Medicaid benefits, in the imposition of the federal death penalty, the mask is coming off, some say, about who really governs. "It reaffirms Puerto Rico's colonial condition," said political science Professor Jose Garriga Pico. "It proves that alleged special relationship doesn't exist and that Puerto Rico is a non-incorporated territory where Congress rules supreme."
Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, an "autonomist," says the U.S. Supreme Court needs to decide if the pact he believes in truly exists. If the court states the contrary, "it would unmask the U.S. as the biggest liar because it fooled the people of Puerto Rico and the international community," he told El Nuevo Dia newspaper.
That still might occur. Gov. Sila Maria Calderon's government plans to appeal the water case involving the Navy and will join the death penalty case as a friend of the court if the defendants appeal. Besides the moves expected this year in Washington to solve the political status issue, many will be watching the courts to see whether judges will end up forcing the hand of politicians.
"Certainly our Constitution rules over a series of very important and basic issues for us," Calderon said. "That's the conflict we face."