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On Developing A Meaningful Plebiscite

By Garry Hoyt

June 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

It is not as simple as just holding another one. After all, there have been three status plebiscites and none have significantly clarified the picture. The basic problem with previous plebiscites is the nature of the three choice format, (independence, commonwealth, or statehood), because one of the choices—commonwealth—really amounts to a decision not to decide.

This inherent ambivalence distorts the reality because the strong independence faction—recognizing they don’t have enough votes to win, merely hides itself in a vote for commonwealth, which artificially swells support for that status, and thereby effectively blocks statehood and creates an apparent stalemate.

So what if Congress were to eliminate commonwealth as a status choice, on the amply proven grounds that it has created a divergent strain of U.S. citizen who pays no U.S. taxes, doesn’t vote in U.S. elections, doesn’t speak English, doesn’t identify as American, and costs the U.S. $16 billion annually. This is an unsatisfactory outcome that is clearly not fair to the U.S. taxpayer. As the outright owner of the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico, the U.S. has a right—not to make the choices, but to define them in terms that are acceptable to the U.S. and understandable to the local voter.

Eliminating commonwealth as an alternative would leave a clear choice between independence and statehood. The knowledgeable prediction is that this would result in about an 80/20 split vote in favor of statehood. But the big problem would then become the political reluctance of Congress to accept the new voting block of a P.R. state, which would probably be Democratic, and therefore upset the balance in Congress. This is not attractive to Republicans. On top of that is the practical reality than an electorate where 80% of the populace cannot speak English cannot possibly be an informed electorate for a U.S. election. So a P.R. vote for statehood is by no means a slam-dunk and could lead to the embarrassing situation where Congress would be seen as refusing what P.R. had voted for. Contemplating these potential problems tends to paralyze the U.S. Congress.

There is a way around this dilemma if we open our minds to new solutions. Consider this scenario. First the U.S. Congress issues what could be termed a clarifying declaration, to the effect that from a specific future date forward, "All U.S. citizens shall be treated equally." Surely that is a fair principle that all can accept. This newly defined equality would further specify that:

  1. All U.S. citizens will be subject to federal taxes
  2. All U.S. citizens will have public school opportunity to full competence in English
  3. All U.S. citizens will receive the same disability benefits (as it now stands, residents of P.R. receive less than stateside residents).

It can quickly be seen that none of the above involves any significant change for U.S. citizens on the mainland, Alaska or Hawaii. But for the island, this declaration would create a new and fair choice—not for Statehood, but for U.S. citizenship on more equal terms. This declaration then sets the stage for a clear and meaningful plebiscite with two simple choices:

  1. Continued U.S. citizenship on more equal terms (as newly defined).
  2. Independence with the full friendship and financial cooperation of the U.S.

Such a plebiscite would, for all to see, quantify the depth and strength of the sentiment for independence versus continued and improved association with the U.S. Of course paying U.S. taxes would immediately raise the question of voting in U.S. elections. (No taxation without representation.) But there is useful precedent here. Both Hawaii and Alaska paid federal taxes for years before they became states and thereby gained voting representation.

The differential factor here is English comprehension, without which there can be no meaningful representation. Consider the potential absurdity of the island holding elections in Spanish for Congressional representatives who might neither understand nor be able to clearly express themselves in English.

Creating mandatory effective public school courses in English—and linking future U.S. educational aid to provable competence in English—would jump start the island’s prerequisite need for English language proficiency for effective voting representation in Congress. A potent byproduct benefit would be the enforced addition of the international language the island needs to compete in a globalized economy. Ironically, the circumstance where P.R. would most need competence in English is as an independent nation.

Without this kind of clarifying plebiscite—which only the U.S. Congress can accomplish—Puerto Rico will remain adrift in the political limbo of commonwealth, which is an avoidance of the clear-cut identity that any nation or region needs to shape its character or future. Commonwealth is a non-American colonial status that is as unfair to the U.S. as it is incomprehensible to the rest of the world. It is both unwise and unfair to ask the U.S. taxpayer to send the staggering sum of $16 billion dollars each year to maintain the anachronism of a costly colony, in a world where colonies are out of date.

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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