The Status Debate

by John Marino

August 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINONew Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera may have declined to participate in Gov. Calderón’s Puerto Rico Unity and Consensus Commission, but a healthy debate on how to move forward on the status issue is nonetheless taking place in San Juan.

Pesquera has refused to participate in the commission, aimed at getting representatives from all political viewpoints to agree on a procedure to resolve the island's status dilemma.

But despite Pesquera's status as a non-participant, he and Calderón have been engaging in a public debate, through statements at press conferences and press releases, on the status issue.

On Wednesday, Pesquera renewed his call to involve President Bush in resolving Puerto Rico's status question, and the governor rejected the idea as "futile" without first reaching a consensus on procedure by political leaders in San Juan.

Pesquera released a draft of a letter he wants to send to Bush asking him to call a meeting with the leaders of the three political parties here to discuss status, and he wants Calderón and Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos to sign it.

"Puerto Rico needs action and no more committees or sterile discussions that won't lead anywhere," Pesquera said. "The status issue requires direct communication with Washington where real alternatives are clearly established to resolve this matter in a definitive way. Now, it's more necessary than ever that the presidents of the three parties go to Washington and talk about the urgent need to attend to this problem."

But Calderón countered that the idea would not work.

"It's seems futile to me to go in disunity, with fundamental discrepancies on procedural processes, and ask for this type of meeting. Why talk to the president or Congress. First, there must be a process of dialogue in Puerto Rico," Calderón said. "I'm open to any suggestion, including signing a letter, but only after we reach agreements on fundamental procedures, even though we have ideological differences."

Pesquera argues that the Popular Democratic Party must define "commonwealth" in more explicit terms before the status debate can move forward.

Pointing to the different reactions within the PDP camp regarding Berríos' recent embrace of "free association," Pesquera said there is an "ideological divide" within the PDP.

Calderón and Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá have defended their call for a "unity" commission as a way to go to Washington on status with a united voice. The PDP leadership has said that previous unilateral attempts at pushing the status debate in Washington have failed.

Much of the public debate is being marred no doubt by politicking and an attempt by the two main political parties to be seen as in control of the debate.

But even the public debate so far has produced some interesting ideas -- if only the politicians involved could see them. And it probably matters little whether the discussion is over coffee at La Fortaleza or in the brazen flow of public statements and press conferences.

Here’s some developments in the debate so far that should be watched:

Here’s some developments in the debate so far that should be watched:

  • Pesquera is right that the PDP has to come up with a more concrete definition of commonwealth. That has been the sticking point in the last two status plebiscites held on the matter. The 1993 vote, which the PDP won, contained a definition of commonwealth that would probably be unacceptable to Congress. In the 1998 vote, commonwealth was defined as a U.S. "territory," unacceptable to the PDP, which prompted the party to back the infamous winning fifth column "none of the above."

The last serious attempt by the PDP to gain enhancements to commonwealth, from 1989 to 1991 under the administration of former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, ended in frustration for commonwealth supporters when 17 of 20 enhanced commonwealth proposals were shot down by the U.S. Senate. Many of these proposals, such as entering into free trade pacts and giving the commonwealth some say on which federal laws apply to the island, are still being discussed by the PDP.

The man who oversaw that initiative, former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, told the San Juan Star this week, "Congress will not pay for a status that has all the benefits of statehood and the attributes of independence. A realistic definition would not be very much different than what they have now."

  • At the same time, commonwealth supporters can also demand some clarity from their pro-statehood and pro-independence opponents. Statehood and sovereignty are much more clearly defined than commonwealth, but much remains up in the air as to the conditions the U.S. Congress would require for a change in political status.

Would federal taxation be implemented before statehood? Or would there be some sort of phase-in period? What sort of "super-majority" would be required for Puerto Rico to be admitted the union? And finally, what does the Constitution say about state’s rights regarding language issues, for instance?

Likewise, in the 1989-91 status hearings, as well as subsequently during the Young Bill hearings between 1996 and 1998, the independence forces pushed for a benevolent transfer from U.S. power to sovereignty, with federal funding for Puerto Rico easing out as the island’s economy would be developed. Is such a scenario today politically realistic?

  • The PDP is right to call for a tri-partisan consensus on how to proceed on the status front, even if the Calderón commission may be more show than substance.

Unilateral efforts by individual parties will unlikely be listened to in Washington, Jim Beirne, the veteran Republican staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, said in a newspaper interview this week. Only through "everyone coming together" would the status debate move forward in Washington, he said.

But getting all three parties – or more importantly the U.S. government -- to address the questions on status definitions and implementations raised above needs to be at the heart of this call for unity if it is to succeed.

That may be what all this talk about process finally boils down to: how can the U.S. government most appropriately address these issues in a definitive way.

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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