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50 Years of Commonwealth

Part II: "Perfecting" the Commonwealth, 1959-1976

JULY 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved.

On July 25, Puerto Rico will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The following is the second of three articles charting Puerto Rico’s quest for self-determination from the establishment of the Puerto Rican Constitution in 1952 until the present day. To read "Part I: Establishing the Commonwealth Constitution, 1950-1953," click here.

Part II: "Perfecting" the Commonwealth, 1959-1976

Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth Constitution of 1952, proclaimed by Governor Luis Muñoz Marin on July 25th of that year, created by popular mandate a system of internal government on the island.

It was an important step toward self-determination for Puerto Rico, one that many to this day believe constituted a new political status called "Commonwealth."

However, it was clear to decision makers at the time in both Washington and Puerto Rico that no such status had been established. The US Congress still exercised authority over Puerto Rico in accordance with the Territorial Clause of the US Constitution, the Jones Act of 1917 (which was merely renamed in 1952 to the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act), and a series of court rulings known as the "insular cases" which dated back to 1901.

Moreover, Gov. Muñoz Marin himself, who has been justly hailed as the father of the Commonwealth Constitution, admitted that the current arrangement between Puerto Rico and the United States was unsatisfactory.

Public Law 600, the 1950 law that authorized Puerto Rico to draft its own Constitution, described itself as being "in the nature of a compact." However, the same document refers to Puerto Rico as "belonging to the United States." In other words, while the law might have had the appearance of a "compact" or treaty between two equals, Puerto Rico remained a territory of the United States whose residents were American citizens, and the idea of the US Government making a treaty with its own people was both illogical and unconstitutional.

As early as 1955, Muñoz-Marin publicized his intention to make dramatic changes to the language and intent of Public Law 600. "All that restricts the authority of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico," he said during a speech in Kansas, "without appreciable damage to the Union and without being essential to the principle of association through common citizenship, should be removed from the compact."

Between 1959 and 1976, Muñoz Marin and his successors in the Popular Democratic Party would lobby Washington repeatedly to make these changes to the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. They hoped to amend the law of 1950 in order to expand the island’s local and international powers while making permanent the common citizenship, defense, currency, and market shared by residents of both Puerto Rico and the mainland US. None of their attempts would succeed, at least not in the way the proponents intended. Rather, one of the most important consequences would be the creation of a powerful new statehood party and the election of Puerto Rico’s first pro-statehood governor.

The opening shot in the campaign to legitimize and expand the "compact" between Puerto Rico and the United States was the Fernós-Murray Bill of 1959. Introduced by longtime Resident Commission Antonio Fernós Isern, who was also instrumental in the passage of Public Law 600 in 1950, this legislation would have replaced the Jones Act of 1917 as the basis for US-Puerto Rico relations.

The Fernós-Murray Bill contained numerous "Articles of Permanent Association" which upheld the fundamental provisions of previous legislation — including US citizenship for Puerto Ricans — while granting certain crucial powers to the Puerto Rican government. For instance, Puerto Rico would attain the right to set its own prices on coffee and, under certain circumstances, to "negotiate trade and commercial agreements" with other countries. Also, a system would be set up to transfer property owned directly by the US government in Puerto Rico, which had previously belonged to the Spanish Crown, to local government control; and US District Court cases in Puerto Rico could be conducted in Spanish.

This bill encapsulated the basic points of what Muñoz Marin would later call the "perfected" Commonwealth. It represented a model wherein Puerto Rico would have many characteristics of a state of the Union while also acting — as in matters of trade — as if it were an independent nation. However, each time such an option has been presented to the US Congress, it has been greeted as a political and constitutional impossibility.

The precedent was set in 1959. Muñoz Marin realized that the Fernós-Murray Bill had no chance of passage, so he asked that it be withdrawn.

Events over the next two years presented serious setbacks to Muñoz Marin’s vision of Commonwealth. In 1959, Hawaii and Alaska were admitted as states, demonstrating the feasibility of distant territories with distinct cultures joining the Union. Then in 1960 the United Nations issued two resolutions on decolonization. They constituted the UN’s most aggressive and unequivocal statements that colonial powers must divest themselves of their possessions, and they defined self-determination as either integration (as a state, for instance), independence, or independence in free association with the former colonial power. Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth arrangement fit into none of these categories.

In 1961, however, the tide turned in Muñoz Marin’s favor. President Kennedy’s first major speech on Latin America, a focus of his Administration, took place in San Juan; and in an executive directive, Kennedy referred to Puerto Rico’s "unique position" as a self-governing territory.

Muñoz Marin took advantage of Kennedy’s interest in Puerto Rico and, with the tenth anniversary of the Commonwealth Constitution approaching, initiated a dialogue with the President. On June 10, 1962, Muñoz Marin wrote to Kennedy about starting a process in the Puerto Rican legislature to "perfect the Commonwealth within its association with the United States" by consulting the residents of Puerto Rico about their status preferences. The President responded positively, mentioning that he did indeed see a "need for growth."

Consequently, at Muñoz Marin’s request, the Puerto Rican legislature passed Joint Resolution No. 1 on December 3, 1962. Interestingly, this resolution did not call for a referendum but instead requested that the US Congress establish a procedure to determine the "ulterior final" status for Puerto Rico.

Congress responded, belatedly, with a 1964 law that set up the US-Puerto Rican Status Commission. The 13 member commission, which included 6 Puerto Ricans, spent the next 2 years exhaustively studying the question of status. In 1990, political scientist Roland I. Perusse called the commission "the most thorough and important investigation of US-Puerto Rico relations ever undertaken by any group before or since."

The commission concluded in 1966 that Commonwealth, Statehood, and Independence are all viable options for Puerto Rico’s permanent political status. It was a victory for the PDP, and the Puerto Rico legislature quickly scheduled a plebiscite for the following year.

The plebiscite of 1967, which was supposed to mark the ascendance of Muñoz-Marin’s Commonwealth as a permanent status, had an interesting result. Commonwealth won handily, with 60% of the vote. However, with Statehooders and supporters of independence boycotting in large numbers, the participation rate (66%) was far below the usual 80% who go to the polls in Puerto Rico. Moreover, even with a boycott in effect, 39% of voters chose Statehood as their preferred option.

In the wake of the plebiscite, Muñoz Marin declared that "the century-old debate about political status has ended." Rather, the opposite was true. Luis A. Ferré, a state senator who led the vote for Statehood in spite of his party’s boycott, founded the New Progressive Party (NPP), ran for Governor of Puerto Rico in 1968, and became the first Statehood advocate ever to hold that position. Thus the plebiscite which was intended to legitimize Commonwealth gave rise instead to the modern Statehood movement and spelled the end of the PDP’s dominance over Puerto Rican politics. That in turn has led to a political stalemate that is defined and dominated by the question of status.

In 1972, the PDP regained power with the election of Rafael Hernández Colón as Governor. In what was becoming a recurring pattern, he too looked to Washington in search of a permanent status. The result of his efforts was a piece of legislation calling for a "Compact of Permanent Union Between Puerto Rico and the United States." From an original draft that would have granted Puerto Rico almost complete autonomy (while still appearing officially like a state) to the version introduced in Congress on August 3, 1976, numerous changes were made to moderate Puerto Rico’s demands. Nevertheless, the final draft reads as an exaggerated version of the failed Fernós-Murray Bill of 1959, including great latitude for Puerto Rico to make trade agreements and join international organizations, as well as for Puerto Rico to elect a non-voting member of the US Senate.

When Congress adjourned in 1976 without acting on this Compact of Permanent Union, an era of attempted enhancement ended in failure and a stalemate settled over the issue of status. That stalemate would last until 1989, when a chain of events would set into motion a decade in which Puerto Rico came closer then ever to achieving full self-determination.

Part III of this series will cover the status debate in the U.S. Congress during the 1990s, leading up to the prospects for self-determination leading to a permanent political status for the 3.8 million US citizens in Puerto Rico. We will review the issues that became dominant in that debate such as language usage, federal taxation, Puerto Rico’s economic inequality with the rest of the nation and the future of American citizenship for Puerto Ricans under the proposed status options.

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