A Government in Denial
By Gene Roman
August 17, 2001
When Bush Aide, Ruben Barrales, visited Puerto Rico last month he announced that the President was committed to "allowing Puerto Ricans to choose their destiny" but that the ultimate choice will be between "independence and statehood." This was a bold and courageous statement with serious implications for the Vieques controversy and the federal disenfranchisement of the 3.8 million U.S. citizens on the Island.
Under the present Commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans have what Commonwealth supporters like to call the "best of both worlds." They are American citizens who are able to maintain a separate national identity and protect the Island's unique cultural heritage. What they forget to mention is that Puerto Ricans born and raised on the mainland like myself still remain close to our heritage while enjoying the benefits of first-class U.S. citizenship? It is important to note that Governor Calderon speaks perfect English and was educated here in NY at Manhattanville College. There goes the argument that you can only be Puerto Rican if you speak only Spanish.
What they also forget to mention is that Island residents cannot vote for President, have no voting representation in Congress, suffer less than equal treatment in the allocation of federal monies, and are subject to military conscription. And here in New York, the armed forces are accountable to two U.S. Senators and a powerful 29 member voting Congressional delegation. In Puerto Rico, they are accountable to no one. As a result, they lack the voting power that would facilitate a permanent resolution to both the Vieques and status questions. "This is the root of the problem, " says Samuel Quiros, a Floridian advocating for the decolonization of Puerto Rico. "Vieques is just one more in a long series of incidents that illustrates the inadequacy of the current political status."
Puerto Rico's first woman Governor, Sila Calderon, does not see it that way. Her chief of staff called Barrales statements "absolutely undemocratic. The statements of Barrales were not authorized and do not represent the official position of the President." To this, the Governor added that we live in a democracy (not at the federal level), and that the majority of Puerto Ricans have already expressed their preference for the present
Commonwealth arrangement. Not by much Governor! The 1993 locally sponsored referendum resulted in a 2% victory for Commonwealth over Statehood-48.6% to 46.3%.
But lets take another look at those 1993 numbers adding in the 4.4% cast for the Independence option. Though it is still a close call, this new tally gives the combined statehood/independence supporters a slight victory over Commonwealth. And as former Puerto Rican Governor, Luis Ferre, eloquently argued during Congressional Hearings on the Island's status in 1996, these results demonstrate that the present Commonwealth arrangement exists without the consent of a majority of the governed. Is this the democracy that the Governor is referring to?
In our system of federalism, only statehood confers the guaranteed U.S. citizenship and voting representation in Congress that the Governor claims could exist under an enhanced Commonwealth status. As a state, Puerto Rico would add the clout of 2 U.S. Senators and 6-8 Congressional representatives to the growing Hispanic lobby in Congress. This increase in voting power can only help cities and states like New York with large Hispanic populations. Even as an independent nation, Puerto Rico would have more leverage than it does now to negotiate a treaty with the United States to resolve the present impasse.
So how does the Governor respond to these claims of political disenfranchisement under Commonwealth? The party line is that this "best of both worlds" philosophy was voted upon by Puerto Ricans and it is legal. I guess she forgot that both apartheid in
South Africa and the segregation that denied African-Americans their voting and civil rights were both legal as well. If we've learned anything from the exemplary leadership of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King and President Nelson Mandela, it is simply that what is legal is not always just.
Even with all this evidence, Governor Calderon refuses to concede that the present status is an obsolete and inadequate mechanism to effectively advocate for Puerto Rico needs at the federal level. She told Island reporters last month that she did "not feel colonized." Sounds a lot like the denial used by alcoholics and drug addicts in their resistance to accept help for problems they can no longer manage on their own.
The Bush administration has courageously laid the foundation for the creation of a constitutional crisis. Barrales' statement is an opportunity for Congress to directly confront the colonial reality of Puerto Rico's Commonwealth status. Only federal intervention can break the Calderon administrations denial regarding the inadequacy of it's status preference. This means the enactment of legislation that would authorize a federally sponsored plebiscite in Puerto Rico between the only two non-colonial options that lead to permanent resolutions of the Vieques controversy and the status question, namely, statehood and independence. It is time for Congress to tell Puerto Rico that its time to choose.
Gene Roman is a NY Democrat and the former Massachusetts Regional Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.