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The San Juan Star


Hostages Of The Territorial Commonwealth

By David Pláceres

August 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The San Juan Star. All rights reserved. 

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of four columns

Don Luis Muñoz Marin was one of the greatest Puerto Ricans of all time. Under his leadership, Puerto Rico came out of extreme poverty, allowing a great part of the population to enjoy much higher living standards. He has also been called the father of commonwealth.

To many Puerto Ricans, Muñoz Marin and commonwealth were synonymous with progress. In appreciation and recognition of his achievements, Puerto Ricans developed some kind of loyalty to both the person and his political party, the Popular Democratic Party. At the same time, Puerto Ricans mistakenly associated commonwealth as the political status between Puerto Rico and the United States, as well as the vehicle that permitted the progress achieved under the leadership of Muñoz Marin. This misconception has been strengthening by the political campaigns of the PDP since.

I praise Muñoz Marin for his leadership and all the programs his government implemented for the benefit of Puerto Ricans. However, I don't give commonwealth many compliments.

When our Constitution was approved in 1952 and commonwealth was institutionalized, there was not much new there in terms of additional power to government that we didn't' already have with the Jones Act of 1917. In fact, the U.S. Congress amended the Jones Act in 1947 to allow us to vote and select our own governor, and our first governor thus elected was Muñoz Marin in 1948. Many of the provisions of the Jones Act were included in our Constitution, such as the bill of rights and the organization of our local government with a Senate and a House of Representatives. I believe the most significant event, conducing to the creation of commonwealth, was the recognition from the United States of our right for government by consent of the governed, and govern our internal affairs, much like any other state of the Union.

Commonwealth was translated to Spanish as Estado Libre Asociado giving Puerto Ricans the illusion that it was a political status meaning that we were a "free state" and also "associated" to the United States. Nothing farther from the truth, since we were neither. In fact, the constitution of the United States shows no path to a non-territorial status other than statehood or sovereign nationhood. Since we became neither, we simply continued as a territory of the United States, our real political status since 1898.

However, with our constitution and our three branches of government, we have authority to handle our own internal affairs. Other than that, the power to deal with matters of national security, negotiate trade agreements with foreign countries, immigration, citizenship, currency, interstate commerce, and other matters of national interest, are mandated by the U.S. Constitution as powers reserved to the U.S. Congress. They are not delegated to the states, let alone to a territory. We need to understand that territories, like Puerto Rico, do not participate in the U.S. Congress in the same manner as the states, since we're not allowed to have Senators and members in the House of Representatives with the right to vote.

Muñoz Marin understood this colonial reality in the status of Puerto Rico and intended to get more autonomy for commonwealth, as did many other leaders of the PDP after him. On this endeavor, they hit a wall. For instance, in 1967, the results of a political status plebiscite, won by the Commonwealth, were taken to Congress as a petition to develop commonwealth. That plebiscite did not produce any single change in Puerto Rico's political status. For the plebiscite of 1993, the leadership of the PDP drafted its own definition of Commonwealth. After the plebiscite, won by the Commonwealth, this definition was reviewed by the Committee on Resources of the U.S. House of Representatives and was defeated by an overwhelming vote of 32 by 10.

Probably, the biggest setback took place in the U.S. House of Representatives on October 4, 2000. On this occasion, the Committee on Resources held a hearing to review H.R. 4751, a bill based on the definition of the enhanced commonwealth as submitted by the Governing Board of the PDP. It looked like this was the best opportunity ever for the PDP to get their proposals passed into law by the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, members of the Committee, and witnesses with expertise in constitutional law, concluded that the proposals submitted by the PDP were unconstitutional and couldn't be legislated. Surprisingly, according to the chairman of the committee, the PDP leadership declined the invitation to attend this hearing.

The U.S. Congress has clearly shown that it is the rule of the supreme law, the U.S. Constitution, which precludes Commonwealth from growing. So now it's up to those in the PDP, who inherited the legacy of Muñoz, to come with honesty to the people of Puerto Rico and admit that there are only three decolonizing options, as defined by the United Nations, to choose from: statehood, independence, or free association. Otherwise, we'll remain hostages of Commonwealth and never freed ourselves out of this political and economical deadlock. As such, the colony wins, we Puerto Ricans lose.

David Pláceres is a CPA and independent writer living in the United States.

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