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Does Puerto Rico’s Constitution Establish a Permanent Political Status?

May 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 
There’s Going To Be A Party — And You’re Invited

On July 25th of this year, Puerto Ricans will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of their constitution. Pro-Commonwealth Governor Sila Calderon is planning a party. Many are wondering what games she plans to play. Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, recently gave us a hint.

In last week’s edition of The Herald, The Washington Update column reported Acevedo Vilá’s difficulty in getting the Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to accept a resolution approving of the current Commonwealth’s governing arrangement. Committee Chairman James Hansen stopped the proposal in its tracks. Most committee members, especially holdovers from the 105th Congress, had been down that road before during the protracted 1998 debate on HR 856, the so-called "Young Bill." Intended to provide Congressionally approved political status definitions for a proposed plebiscite on the island, it became impossible for committee members to extract from pro-Commonwealth supporters a definition as to exactly what that status meant to them. Their witnesses, including Mr. Acevedo Vilá, then an official of the Popular Democratic Party, mostly talked about what Commonwealth wasn’t or what they wished for it to be.

This and other moves by the current pro-Commonwealth administration in Puerto Rico is part of the attempt to decorate the cake for Puerto Rico’s commemoration of 50 years of local self-government under its constitution, ratified by the U.S. Congress and overwhelmingly approved by the Puerto Rican electorate on July 25, 1952. Ambiguity as to what was the local government’s relationship to the United States began right away as it called itself one thing in English and another thing in Spanish. "Commonwealth," the English moniker, does not exist as a political status under the U.S. Constitution. The Spanish name, Estado Libre Asociado (Freely Associated State), implies the status of an independent country joined to the United States by treaty, which Puerto Rico is not. Chairman Hansen indicated that he was willing to have the Resources Committee pass language that would simply commemorate the anniversary of the constitution but the Resident Commissioner has not decided if such a gift is appropriately wrapped.

The 1952 Puerto Rico Constitution is a commendable document, closely patterned after the U.S. Constitution, its language protective of civil and human rights. It establishes a workable system of local self-government and specifically designates the manner by which that government is elected. It acknowledges the American citizenship of Puerto Ricans and celebrates the "duel cultures" existing on the island. It does not, however, imply a change in the island’s political relationship with the United States Government. Under the U.S. Constitution, Puerto Rico was before, and remains today, an "Unincorporated Territory." It enjoys no sovereign relationship with the 50 states and it is in no way an independent political entity. Such a conclusion is anathema to many Puerto Ricans who hold that their constitution established a "compact" with the United States that clothed the island with internationally recognizable sovereignty.

There will be much for Puerto Ricans to celebrate in July of this year. For a half-century its constitution has produced a competitive local political process with large public participation. Power has peacefully passed between political parties and among competing candidates. Voter turnout for most elections puts to shame the level of participation in any of the fifty states. Puerto Ricans are loyal American citizens and have made significant contributions to their island and to the American Nation as a whole.

These attributes, however, and the many more that could be mentioned, do not provide politicians with confetti to throw during the Constitutional Jubilee in July. Between now and ten, look for status-oriented "Pols" of every persuasion to be in a frantic search for candles of their stripe to place on the cake.

This Week's Question:
Does Puerto Rico’s Constitution Establish a Permanent Political Status?

7% Undecided


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