It’s Time To Play Ball

by John Marino

July 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOWhen Luis Muñoz Marín, the father of commonwealth and Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, addressed Puerto Rico’s Constitutional Convention 50 years ago, he described the new political status with the passion of poetry.

"An end has been put to all traces and vestiges of the colonial system in Puerto Rico," he said. "Puerto Rico is in the nature of being a member of a federal union in a new form, a creative form, a form invented by the people themselves in collaboration with the Congress of the United States."

Muñoz Marín put the economic well-being of his people before a final status solution when drawing up Puerto Rico’s Constitution.

The increased political power brought by the birth of commonwealth in 1952 came in the midst of "Operation Bootstrap," an industrial program that transformed Puerto Rico from the "poorhouse" to the "showcase" of the Caribbean.

But over the years, commonwealth’s economic benefits have been eroded by free trade pacts and other realities of the global economy.

Moreover, Congress has eliminated other of its benefits, such as federal tax breaks for U.S. firms operating in Puerto Rico.

And the lyricism with which Muñoz Marín described the birth of commonwealth — entirely appropriate at the time — today must compete with skepticism over the long-time prospects for the status now being expressed by U.S. politicians and legal scholars — not to mention the pro-statehood and pro-independence critics back home.

The 50th birthday of commonwealth is good news for those who want to resolve Puerto Rico’s perennial status dilemma.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue — supporting either a version of the status quo, statehood or independence -- the anniversary has the power to push the debate forward.

That’s because it has firmly placed the status ball back into the hands of the Popular Democratic Party, and all of Puerto Rico appears eager to watch commonwealth supporters play the game.

If they do, it will push Puerto Rico closer towards a status solution.

After eight years of the pro-statehood administration of former Gov. Pedro Rossello bashing commonwealth, in both San Juan and Washington, every chance it could get, it will be refreshing to hear the administration of Gov. Sila Calderón talking about the possibilities of developing the status.

Calderón’s campaign platform pledges to do so.

"In representing the free associated state as the definitive preference of Puerto Ricans for the future, the PDP recognizes and accepts its historic responsibility to foster its development in the new century," the platform plank states. "The burden is on our shoulders to pinpoint the manner in which commonwealth will respond to the needs of our times and the just calls for complete democracy."

And she has pushed ahead with plans — despite a New Progressive Party boycott — with establishing the Puerto Rico Unity and Consensus Commission, which is charged with developing a tri-partisan accord on the mechanism through which the status dilemma should be resolved.

If she is really committed to consensus, Calderón will heed calls by independence and statehood supporters— not to mention the many voices from within her party -- and move energetically on the status front.

Critics have charged she is moving too slowly on the status and the commission is merely an attempt to stall action. But while defending commonwealth as "marvelous" for Puerto Rico and the United States in a recent National Press Club speech, Calderón nonetheless said there is room for improvement, indicating she will initiate some action on status.

She and other PDP leaders remain tightlipped over what improvements they would seek in an "enhanced commonwealth," but a few key areas seem to emerge from recent comments made by many PDP officials on the subject.

These include having some say on which federal laws apply in Puerto Rico, entering into free trade agreements and joining international organizations. The "new commonwealth" would also guarantee U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans and define the status as a "bilateral pact" between Puerto Rico and the United States which could only be changed by consent of both parties.

That’s a tall order for the PDP to fill — especially because the working definition of "enhanced commonwealth" has already been shot down as unconstitutional by the Clinton White House in 2000 and the House of Representatives in 1998.

Even the charismatic Muñoz Marín, who had the uncanny ability to be as persuasive in Washington as in San Juan, grew frustrated in his subsequent attempts to develop commonwealth.

And his visionary leadership notwithstanding, he had on his side the strategic value of Puerto Rico — a military and political foothold for the United States in the midst of the Cold War raging in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Today, with an expected pull-out of the Navy from Vieques and a new focus on homeland defense, the strategic value of Puerto Rico, which often served to spur U.S. action on other fronts, has diminished substantially from 50 years ago.

Calderón’s great challenge in Washington could simply be getting someone willing to listen to Puerto Rico status proposals.

But a pro-commonwealth administration engaging Congress or the White House in an extended discussion about the possibilities of commonwealth, or some new form of it, will contribute greatly towards a final status solution — just as the previous statehood administration’s discussion of commonwealth’s limits did.

For that reason, commonwealth, statehood and independence should all be saying to the PDP: "Go for it. See what you can get. Play ball."

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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