Para ver esta página en español, oprima aquí.


50 Years of Commonwealth

Part III: Congress and the Search for Permanence, 1989-2002

JULY 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin’s proclamation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The following is the last in a series of three articles.

To read "Part I: Establishing the Commonwealth Constitution, 1950-1953, click here.

To read "Part II: ‘Enhancing’ the Commonwealth, 1959-1976," click here.

Part III: Congress and the Search for Permanence, 1989-2002

In the end, it all comes down to the US Congress.

All of the key factors in Puerto Rican political life have come as a result of acts of Congress. The island’s current "Commonwealth" Constitution was authorized by a federal law in 1950 and approved (with changes) by Congress in 1952; and many more rights and privileges, including US citizenship by birth, exemption from federal income tax, a bicameral local legislature, and a popularly elected governor, were established well before that time.

The United States Congress exercises authority over Puerto Rico under Article IV, Section 3, clause 2 of the US Constitution, which states that "Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States."

Thus for over 100 years Puerto Ricans have been petitioning Congress to act in Puerto Rico’s interest, and for at least half that time the central issue in Puerto Rico has been its status, or how to define a permanent political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. As early as 1945, Luis Muñoz Marin, a longtime supporter of an independent Puerto Rico who would soon become the first elected governor of the island, petitioned Washington to advise residents of Puerto Rico of the viable options for a permanent status.

Since 1952, the three options that have enjoyed the most popularity on the island have been (1) An enhanced version of the current Commonwealth arrangement, (2) permanent union with the United States as a State, and (3) Independence. For years, however, the US Congress remained silent on the validity of these options and unwilling to establish a process for Puerto Rico to establish one of them on a permanent basis.

In 1989, the three Puerto Rican political parties notified Congress that "the People of Puerto Rico wish[ed] to be consulted as to their preference with regards to their ultimate political status." What followed was a decade of Congressional debates and local referenda that brought Puerto Rico closer than it has ever been to a Congressionally sanctioned vote for political self-determination.

As a result of the Puerto Rican request, several bills were introduced in Congress that would have laid the groundwork for a plebiscite on status by the end of 1991. The Puerto Rico Status Referendum Act included a detailed description of the three status options, a timetable for a plebiscite, and a plan for implementing the status that won the majority of votes. That bill failed in the committee phase. Another piece of legislation, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, first introduced in 1990, had a similar purpose but was much less clear when it came to defining options or making the plebiscite binding; it only promised to consider the winning option of a locally-sponsored vote. That bill did not obtain passage, either.

With no federal guidance, the Puerto Rican government proceeded with a referendum in late 1991 that proposed a number of amendments to the Commonwealth Constitution, all relating to status. One particularly controversial amendment asserted "the right to choose a status without colonial or territorial subordination to the plenary powers of Congress." The referendum failed, 53% to 46%.

In November 1992, President George H. W. Bush made an abrupt change in White House policy regarding Puerto Rico. He rescinded a 1961 memorandum by President Kennedy that recognized Puerto Rico’s "unique position" of self-government, instead asserting the island’s territorial status and the need for a self-determination process. The will of Puerto Rico’s residents, he wrote, "should be ascertained periodically by means of a general right of referendum or specific referenda sponsored either by the United States Government or the Legislature of Puerto Rico." Moreover, President Bush signaled his status preference by requiring that the island henceforth be treated "administratively as if it were a State."

Puerto Rico’s newly elected pro-Statehood Governor, Pedro Rosselló, jumped at the possibility of obtaining Statehood for the island and announced a plebiscite for November 14, 1993. A Commonwealth status with proposed future enhancements won 48.6% of the votes, with Statehood close behind at 46.3% and Independence garnering only 4.4%.

The 1993 plebiscite exposed two serious flaws in the idea of holding a locally-sponsored plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status. First, the US Congress was under no obligation to implement the winning option, or even to respond to the results of the vote. Second, while Statehood and Independence are self-explanatory and based on United Nations definitions of self-determination, and act of Congress would be necessary to define Commonwealth, which would be a much more ambiguous status based on mutual agreement between San Juan and Washington.

Consequently, Congress did not act to enshrine the winning option in the plebiscite. Instead the opposite occurred. Rep. Don Young (R — Alaska) introduced a concurrent resolution in the House and Senate that questioned the validity and legality of what he called at the time "the mythical Commonwealth option." According to Rep. Young, enhancing the Commonwealth would grant residents in Puerto Rico "the federal benefits of United States citizens living in the States without the concomitant responsibilities." This was not "an economically or politically viable alternative" to the current self-governing, territorial status, nor was it even "constitutionally viable."

When the Republican Party took control of the US Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, Don Young became Chairman of the House Resources Committee, which is charged with administering Puerto Rico and other US possessions. He became the driving force behind the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, popularly known as the Young Bill, which came closer to establishing a self-determination process for Puerto Rico than any other legislation before or since.

The Young Bill was motivated on the one hand by recognition of Puerto Rico’s need for a self-determination process in time for the 1998 centennial of the Spanish American War, in which Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States. On the other hand, the conservative Republicans who controlled Congress wanted to revise the current scenario, in which residents of Puerto Rico received federal subsidies, business incentives, and government assistance without having to pay federal income tax.

The status process instituted by the Young Bill drew inspiration from the three UN-recognized permanent status options: Statehood, Independence, and Independence in Free Association. Crucially, the option of Commonwealth was defined as a territorial, non-permanent status, without any of the enhancements that had been part of the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party platform for years. In fact, according to the Young Bill, a vote for Commonwealth would not initiate a permanent status but rather set the stage for future plebiscites held on a "periodic" basis.

Contrary to criticism at the time, however, the Young Bill was not merely a ruse for Statehood. Numerous congressional conservatives — who had not yet discovered the power of the Latino vote — worried about admitting a Spanish-speaking State into the Union, and attached a measure touting English as the "language of mutual understanding" in the US, sparking concern in Puerto Rico about protecting the island’s language and culture in the event of Statehood.

The Young Bill was passed by the US House of Representatives but was never brought to a vote in the Senate. Nevertheless, it constitutes at this time the clearest statement of the attitude in Congress on the various status options available to residents of Puerto Rico.

In 1998, Gov. Rosselló decided to go through with a status plebiscite despite the absence of a federal mandate. The options included the four choices outlined in the Young Bill, plus a fifth alternative, "None of the Above," which was required by local law.

In that plebiscite, 46.5% of voters chose Statehood, with no other status option receiving more than 2.5% of the vote. Commonwealth, as defined by Congress, received only 0.1% of the vote. However, 50.2% of voters chose "None of the Above" (A Zogby poll determined that only 37.3% of those voters favored "another definition of commonwealth," while the rest constituted a protest vote over a slew of other issues). Without Congressional approval, yet another plebiscite had ended with confusion, division, and stagnation.

Little has changed in US-Puerto Rico relations in the years since the 1998 plebiscite. Congress and the White House have repeatedly echoed the themes of the Young Bill but without any concrete action. In 1999, the accidental death of a civilian worker in Vieques triggered protests against the US Navy’s bombing exercises on that island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Sila Calderón, the pro-Commonwealth Mayor of San Juan, swept to victory in the island’s gubernatorial election of 2000 by promising to force the Navy out of Vieques. However, without any power over federal affairs, and with only a single, non-voting representative in the US Congress, Gov. Calderón has had no success. Currently, the Navy may or may not leave Vieques in May of 2003, but the government of Puerto Rico will have no authority in the matter.

Today there is little consensus between Washington and San Juan on whether to celebrate or denigrate the 50th anniversary of the Puerto Rican Constitution, although everyone seems to agree that the current situation is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican economy keeps getting worse, federal tax incentives to businesses are evaporating, issues like the future of the US Navy in Vieques remain unresolved, and the 3.8 million US citizens living in Puerto Rico lack the rights of enfranchisement and self-determination that should be theirs under international law, moral imperative, and the principles of American democracy.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback