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50 Years of Commonwealth

Part I: Establishing the Commonwealth Constitution, 1950-1953

JULY 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved.

On July 25, 2002, Puerto Rico will celebrate the 50th anniversary of local self-government. On that day in 1952, Governor Luis Muñoz Marin formally proclaimed a new Constitution for the island, which would henceforth be called the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In a three-part series of articles, the Puerto Rico Herald will explore the history of this Commonwealth Constitution, from its roots in the US Congress through the ongoing effort to achieve a permanent political status for Puerto Rico.

Part I: Establishing the Commonwealth Constitution, 1950-1953

In the beginning, there was the 25th of July.

It is a day to remember in the history of relations between the United States and Puerto Rico. Everything that came after it — the PDP, the NPP, the PIP; the endless debates and grand promises; the political stalemate that fills the coffers of lobbyists and leaves millions in the lurch — all these things were set in motion on that day.

It was, after all, the day when the United States took colonial possession of the island of Puerto Rico.

104 years ago, on July 25, 1898, General Nelson Appleton Miles launched the invasion of Puerto Rico. The Spanish American War was turning into a "splendid little war" for the Americans, who had decided to grab Puerto Rico from Spain as reparation for the "liberation" of Cuba and the Philippines. General Miles, encountering virtually no resistance, swiftly occupied the island, aided by his promises to the islanders that he brought with him the political freedom and economic prosperity of the new American Empire.

Exactly 54 years later, Governor Luis Muñoz Marin proclaimed the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, making claims that were strikingly similar to those of General Miles. The idea was once again that Puerto Rico, in association with the United States, would enjoy unprecedented levels of liberty and opportunity.

A half century after Gov. Muñoz Marin’s proclamation, fundamental questions hang over Puerto Rico: Did the Commonwealth Constitution of 1952 end Puerto Rico’s status as a colony of the United States? If so, why does the US Congress still consider itself the final arbiter of Puerto Rican law within its mandate expressed by the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution? And if not, has Puerto Rico made any progress in the ensuing 50 years toward achieving the self-determination that has been promised for generations?

To answer those questions, it is necessary first to look at the events that led to the drafting, amendment, and ratification of the Constitution of Puerto Rico.

In the late 1940s, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) controlled Puerto Rican politics, and Luis Muñoz Marin was just starting his 16-year tenure as the island’s first popularly elected governor. A decade before, Muñoz Marin had been a founder of the PDP, a party that ostensibly shunned discussion of Puerto Rico’s political status, focusing instead on the island’s desperate economic conditions.

The question of status has never been easy to avoid, however, since debate on the subject has continued more or less unabated since the days of Spanish rule. Moreover, after years of ignoring status, the US Congress was turning its attention to the problem. The emergence of sometimes violent Puerto Rican nationalism had some members of Congress calling for the island’s independence. Muñoz Marin had personally favored this option, but he had shrunk from the harsh terms and short transition period outlined in a series of bills introduced by Rep. Tydings of Maryland.

In 1945, Muñoz Marin had petitioned Congress to list the viable options available to Puerto Rico for a permanent political status. The Congress had not done so, and indeed the concept would never receive serious consideration until 1989. Next, hopeful to reach a middle ground between abrupt independence and statehood (which he never wanted), Muñoz Marin had written a series of articles in EL Mundo newspaper proposing a new status option that he called the "Associated People of Puerto Rico."

Once again, Congress was not interested in changing status. They did, however, decide in 1947 that Puerto Rico was "sufficiently politically mature" to choose its own governor. Muñoz Marin was elected to the position in November of 1948.

In that year Muñoz Marin, working with Resident Commissioner Antonio Fernós Isern (1946-1965), took a new tack in Washington. Careful to note that they considered the status issue to be shelved, they proposed that Congress allow Puerto Rico to draft its own local Constitution. This new document would not create any political change on the island, they promised, but rather it would clarify and codify the rules and rights already in effect.

Muñoz Marin and Fernós Isern got their wish in 1950 with the passage of S. 3336, which became known as Public Law 600 of the 81st Congress. This law authorized Puerto Rico to draft a Constitution, which would then be ratified after joint consultation with Puerto Rico and the US Congress.

Public Law 600 set into motion a dramatic two-year period in which a Constitutional Convention was convened, with Fernós Isern as its President; a Constitution was drafted and approved by Congress; and Puerto Rican voters added their stamp of approval in three separate referenda. It was a stunning political victory for Muñoz Marin and a landmark in Puerto Rican history.

The fact remained, however, that Public Law 600, and the local Constitution which it authorized, altered nothing in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The law describes itself as being "in the nature of a compact," but it also clearly refers to Puerto Rico as "belonging to the United States" (emphasis added). Moreover, the intent of the legislators is well known. House of Representatives Report No. 2275, drafted during deliberations on the bill, states: "The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relationship to the United States." The report adds that the Puerto Rican Constitution would apply only to "other matters of purely local concern."

In fact, Public Law 600 explicitly upholds the terms of the Jones Act of 1917, which continues to this day as the basis of US-Puerto Rico relations. While repealing certain sections that covered Puerto Rico’s internal government, the law of 1950 maintained verbatim the most pertinent sections of the Jones Act, including the right by birth of Puerto Ricans to hold American citizenship. Only the name of the law changed, so that it would henceforth be called the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act.

Furthermore, once the Puerto Rician electorate approved its new Constitution on March 3, 1952 (almost exactly 35 years after passage of the Jones Act), the US Congress reviewed the document and made changes to it. Most importantly, Congress added a line that any amendments to the Constitution "shall be consistent with the resolution enacted by the Congress of the United States approving the Constitution, with the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, and with Public Law 600, Eighty-first Congress, adopted in the nature of a compact."

While the Congress clearly understood what it was (and was not) granting to Puerto Rico, Muñoz Marin and the PDP (who had dominated the Constitutional Convention) were perhaps not so forthright in conveying that message to Puerto Rico’s population. In one of the oddest and most confusing of word games, Puerto Rico’s internal government adopted two completely different names, depending on the language. The English term of Commonwealth has a vague, innocuous sound to it. The Spanish term Estado Libre Associado, which translates to "Freely Associated State" in English, has another meaning entirely. Indeed, it refers back to Muñoz Marin’s proposed status of "The Associated People of Puerto Rico," which had been ignored in Washington a few years earlier.

Muñoz Marin, a poet, understood language, so he was thus able to make a subtle linguistic claim in Spanish that would have never been accepted in English. Confusion has reigned ever since.

The establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was an important step in the island’s progress toward self-determination, but it was not a large step and it was certainly not a decisive one. The Jones Act of 1917, and even the Foraker Act of 1900, played much bigger roles in defining and shaping Puerto Rico’s current status as an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Nevertheless, the United Nations General Assembly ruled in 1953 that in light of recent developments, the United States would no longer have to report on Puerto Rico’s progress toward becoming a self-governing territory, as required by Article 73(e) of the UN Charter. Acting at the behest of Governor Muñoz Marin, the UN decided that Puerto Rico had become "an autonomous political entity."

Notwithstanding the UN’s ruling, very few people in Puerto Rico and the United States see the Constitution of 1952 as a definitive assertion of Puerto Rico’s self-determination. Criticism of the Constitution started early and has never stopped; and it did not only come from the ranks of statehooders and those favoring independence for the island.

As early as 1954, Muñoz Marin himself was calling for improvements to the Commonwealth Constitution, launching a PDP movement to "enhance" the Constitution that has continued, with less and less success, to the current administration of Governor Sila Calderon.

Part II of this series will reconstruct the efforts of the PDP to "enhance" the Commonwealth, as well as the rise of a powerful statehood movement under the New Progressive Party (NPP).

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