Calderon May Call National Powers Plan "A New Covenant", Acevedo Embarrassed as House Committee Passes Constitution Resolution

May 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. .. Calderon May Call National Powers Plan "A New Covenant"

The administration of Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party) continued its move towards proposing national powers for the Commonwealth while retaining the benefits of Puerto Rico’s American status. It sponsored a conference on the drive for residents of the Boston, Massachusetts area, and used the event to try out a name for the drive: "A New Covenant for a New Century."

The conference, which was co-sponsored by the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus, was called the "Conference on the 50th Anniversary of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico: A New Covenant for a New Century." The agenda addressed key elements of Calderon’s status plan:

    • Trade (The authority to negotiate agreements with foreign countries.)
    • Taxes (90% tax exemption for profits from the islands of companies based in the States.)
    • Nationhood, Bilateralism, Permanency, and Citizenship (Puerto Rico would be recognized as a nation but with a binding, permanent union with the United States and with U.S. citizenship for all persons born in the islands.)
    • Increasing Puerto Rican Political Capacity to Effect Change (Registering residents of States of Puerto Rican origin to vote in the States.)

The word "Covenant" was chosen because it is used in the name of the bilateral document that established the federal-territorial relationship of the other territory of the United States that has a local government named "Commonwealth," the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI). The document was agreed to on a bilateral basis because the N.M.I. was not U.S. territory at the time. Instead, the islands were a part of a United Nations trust territory. The document was named a "Covenant" because the United States pledged not to unilaterally amend a few key -- but very limited -- provisions. Included were the authorization for the local constitution and the grant of U.S. citizenship. Federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of the commitment because it was made through an international agreement under the President’s foreign policy power, and was essential to the agreement.

The commitment may have attracted Calderon aides to the name "Covenant." They may also have been attracted to the NMI’s exemption from federal laws from which Calderon also wants Puerto Rico exempted. The NMI is the U.S.’ newest territory, and immigration laws and laws requiring that ocean shipping between U.S. ports be on U.S. built, owned, and crewed vessels have not yet been extended to the islands. The national minimum wage has also not been extended to the NMI. Calderon aides have flirted with seeking an exemption from wage laws but have dropped the idea.

Among Calderon associates speaking at the conference were Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila (D), Federal Affairs Administration Director Mari Carmen Aponte, and Senator Jose Ortiz Daliot. Acevedo used the occasion to further explain the first formal step that Calderon plans to in the drive: creating a nine-member commission to consider whether Puerto Rico should determine its political status preference through a plebiscite, a joint federal-territorial commission, or a convention.

The commission would consist of Acevedo, a representative of each of Puerto Rico’s status-based political parties, and five others named by Calderon with the approval of the presidents of the statehood and independence parties. The five would include two judges and three citizens who are not part of the "structure" of any of the parties. All of the members would have to agree that "Commonwealth" is a status option for Puerto Rico.

Acevedo asserted that the initiative would be the first status process in Puerto Rico’s recent history open to the parties not in power in the islands -- ignoring the tri-partisan, equally-balanced commission that former Governor Hernandez Colon ("commonwealth" party/D) created in 1989 and ignoring the equal access that the federal government gave the "commonwealth" and independence parties along with the incumbent statehood party during federal status initiatives from 1996 to 2000.

Acevedo also asserted that:

  • Congress has not authorized a status process in Puerto Rico -- ignoring the law enacted in 2000 providing funding to Puerto Rico for education on and a choice among the status options.
  • "Commonwealth" has been favored in every status vote in Puerto Rico — ignoring the fact that it only obtained .1% of the vote in the 1998 vote.
  • The statehood party spent millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions in the mid-90s to convince the Congress that Puerto Ricans wanted statehood and for a bill that excluded "commonwealth" as an option — ignoring the facts that statehood party officials only said that Puerto Ricans wanted a status choice and the bill included a "commonwealth" option that was based on the proposal of the "commonwealth" party under Acevedo’s leadership.

Meanwhile, another "commonwealth" party leader said that Calderon may formally begin the drive before the July 25th anniversary of Puerto Rico’s local constitution. Calderon has been expected to announce the commission during a celebration that the Commonwealth government and the "commonwealth" party will conduct that day. But she now may issue an executive order to create the commission earlier.

The reason is that the "commonwealth" party leaders of the Legislative Assembly want to create the commission by law. They want Puerto Rico to choose its status preference through a convention. Their reason is that they believe that it will be easier for "commonwealth" and pro-independence delegates to compromise on a ‘free association’ compromise in a convention than it would be in a joint commission with the federal government or a referendum. Under free association, Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation in a temporary power-sharing agreement with the U.S., although most "commonwealth" party advocates of free association want the association to be permanent and for the U.S. to continue to grant citizenship to persons born in Puerto Rico.

Acevedo Embarrassed as House Committee Passes Constitution Resolution

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources passed the resolution "celebrating" the 50th anniversary of Puerto Rico’s local constitution with minimal debate, with Resident Commissioner embarrassed on several points, and with Committee staffers stressing that there was no intent to support "commonwealth" status claims.

The resolution was agreed to on a voice vote during a few hour session that saw the approval of some 16 measures. Acevedo was limited to very brief remarks while Representatives Dale Kildee (D-MI) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) noted for the record that it was not intended to support "commonwealth" claims.

Acevedo was forced by the Committee’s bipartisan leaders, Chairman James Hansen (R-UT) and Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV), to propose amendments that changed the celebration from being for the "constitution of the Commonwealth" to the "Constitution of the Commonwealth." They were concerned that "constitution" with a lower case "c" could be misunderstood to refer to the organizing of the Commonwealth rather than specifically to the Constitution of the Commonwealth. Use of the lower case "c" in the resolution originated with an Acevedo draft of the resolution.

Acevedo was also caught denying that the resolution had been substantially rewritten by the Committee leaders. The two leaders had rewritten the language to delete suggestions of acceptance of "commonwealth" party claims or support of Puerto Rico’s current status. After Acevedo told reporters that the leaders had not rewritten the resolution as news reports claimed, an aide to Hansen confirmed that they had.

The resolution also directly contradicted Acevedo’s contention that Puerto Ricans are a nation and are not a minority seeking to preserve their culture within a larger nation. It says that Puerto Ricans have contributed to the national culture of the United States. The language is a major setback for Acevedo and others who have claimed that Puerto Rico is ineligible for statehood because of Puerto Rican culture.

In a briefing memorandum to Committee members, the Committee staff wrote that the resolution was intended to be "nonpartisan [referring to Puerto Rico’s status vision based political parties] and status-neutral." The Hansen aide confirmed that a long Acevedo draft, reflecting "commonwealth" party dogma had been edited down to a few historical facts.

Sources close to Hansen say that he agreed to pass a resolution for a number of reasons, including: he did not want Democrats to be able to say that Republicans blocked a resolution recognizing an Hispanic political achievement; Acevedo asked him directly; and Puerto Rico's local constitution is worthy of recognition.

They assert that Hansen remains strongly opposed to "commonwealth" party status claims and that, although he favors independence for Puerto Rico, appreciates the support that statehooders have shown for the Navy and the United States as a whole.

Calderon to Try Again to Get Approval to Join International Organization

The Calderon Administration is ready to try again to get the U.S. Department of State to support Puerto Rico becoming an associate member of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).

Last year, the insular government applied for the membership without clearing it with the State Department, prompting U.S. officials to make U.S. opposition known to ACS members. The opposition is due to three points:

  • The Cuban dictatorship is an active member of the organization.
  • The organization takes policy positions — including positions critical of U.S. policy.
  • The ACS requires due that can only be committed to by sovereign nations.

The U.S. objections were not new. Opposition had been stated in the past when previous administrations in Puerto Rican had sought State Department support. Calderon sought State Department acceptance when U.S. diplomats told other countries of the U.S. opposition. Her arguments did not persuade U.S. officials, however.

U.S. officials then sought to talk to Calderon’s Secretary of State, Ferdinand Mercado, about the issue, but Mercado has avoided meeting with them until recently. He now says he is ready to meet. A source in touch with Mercado says that a Washington law firm has supplied him with a memorandum that he hopes will turn U.S. officials around. The Calderon administration has also reportedly been trying to lobby Bush Administration officials to ignore the advice of U.S. diplomats on the matter.

Mercado’s willingness to meet came after Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich told Senator Ortiz Daliot of the State Department’s desire to meet. Ortiz went public with the invitation — and the Cuban reason for the U.S. opposition to Puerto Rican membership, a reason that U.S. officials have not publicly expressed. Ortiz criticized the reason. Reich, who took office long after the reason was determined, has been criticized by Democratic members of the U.S. Senate for his strong views against the Cuban dictatorship.

Navy Agrees to Spend All of $40 Million on Vieques

Navy Secretary Gordon England agreed to spend at least an additional $22 million to aid the community of Vieques. The funds are most of the $40 million to address the community’s health, economic, and environmental concerns regarding the Navy training range on the island that were appropriated under the agreement on range issues reached by the federal and Commonwealth governments during the Clinton and Rossello administrations.

After England had concluded that the range should close on the agreement’s deadline of May 1, 2003 without the agreement’s local referendum to determine whether it would close, he decided that most of the $40 million should not be spent. Contributing to his decision was a lack of cooperation with projects funded by the Navy on the part of the Vieques municipal government. Mayor Damaso Serrano (‘commonwealth" party) was concerned that the projects would improve public acceptance of the range. Also contributing to England’s decision were Serrano’s ideas of how the funds should be spent, such as a multimillion-dollar Vieques art museum.

England’s decision limited expenditures of the $40 million to between $16 and $18 million of the $40 million. It irritated supporters of the range in Congress, however, including House Armed Services Committee Ranking Democrat Ike Skelton(D-MO) and Member Gene Taylor (D-MS) as well as Republicans such as Hansen and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). They had hoped use of the funds would win community acceptance of the range.

Concerned that most of the money would be lost due to the Calderon Administration’s opposition to any further military training on the range, Resident Commissioner Acevedo worked with Skelton and Serrano to preserve the funding. Serrano revised his proposals for the money to propose that most of it be spent for a project called for by the Clinton-Rossello agreement: improved ferry service facilities to make the trip between Vieques and Puerto Rico easier. Skelton pressed England to relent on not spending the unspent funds. The Navy’s Southern Commander, Rear Admiral Kevin Green, who is based in Puerto Rico and had always advocated full use of the money to improve community relations during the final period of training on the range, also advised England to let the funds be used for Vieques. England finally agreed.

Army Command to Leave Puerto Rico

Statehood party president Carlos Pesquera made a well-publicized trip to Washington to lobby for the Army’s Southern Command headquarters to remain in Puerto Rico, but Pentagon sources say that there is little chance that it will.

Pesquera expressed hope that the headquarters would remain at Fort Buchanan in San Juan if Governor Calderon worked for it to stay, but: Defense Department officials had never like the idea of relocating the command to Puerto Rico when it had to leave Panama; the headquarters was located in Puerto Rico due to the efforts of the Clinton White House and Army officials abetted by the Rossello Administration; headquarters personnel have not felt welcome in the community; Members of Congress from Georgia, Alabama, and Texas are pressing for the command to be relocated to their regions; and the Calderon Administration has not shown the interest in the command that the Rossello Administration did.

The "Washington Update" appears bi-weekly.

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