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Editorial & Column


Status: End Game V


April 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

By taking into account the lessons learned from the various failed attempts to resolve the status issue with Congress, and the need to resolve this matter once and for all, this series of articles proposes that a Constitutional Convention be convened to present sequential propositions to Congress leading to a final decision.

In these articles, I have pointed out again and again that this process requires a previous agreement between our political parties, which would predetermine the structure and proceedings of the Convention. This will guarantee fairness and unity of purpose in a democratic manner, both of which are essential to success. One of the critical items to be agreed upon is how to engage the Congress.

Some would engage the Congress through the president or through some task force created by the White House to handle the issue. This introduces an unnecessary step and delay in the procedure. The most that the president can do is recommend legislation to Congress, because he lacks the power to effect changes in the status of Puerto Rico.

The Convention should take the direct route and present its proposals to Congress, with which the power to make changes in the status of Puerto Rico lies. In the case of statehood or independence, petitions from Puerto Rico can even be resolved by Congress through Concurrent Resolution, which need not be signed by the president. The Congress will, in due time, call upon the president, departments, and agencies to express their views on the legislation. So, the Convention must address the Congress directly while it makes every effort to secure support from the White House.

The understanding between the parties should determine that, at the outset, the Convention would petition Congress, not to approve a particular alternative, but to set up a procedure for expedited consideration of the Convention’s proposals. Coming to such an agreement will be most difficult for the parties because of the issue of definitions. But this is absolutely necessary.

The House has voted procedures for expedited consideration before, in conjunction with definitions of the status alternatives. The first time was in 1990, when it approved unanimously HR 4765 by Ron de Lugo to enable the people of Puerto Rico to exercise self-determination. The second time was in 1997, when it approved by one vote HR 3024 (the Young bill) to provide a process leading to full self-government for Puerto Rico. This time, however, the Congress would be petitioned to consider sequential proposals.

The definitions--not the expedited consideration procedure--bogged down HR 4765 and HR 3024 in the Senate. Defining perfected commonwealth or the transition to statehood, or dual citizenship for free association or independence, before the people vote on them, represents making hard political decisions on the abstract and hypothetical level. Experience tells us that Congress avoids such issues until it necessarily must decide them.

On the Puerto Rican front, making definitions at the threshold of a status process sets up a political hornet’s nest. If unity is to be maintained among supporters of the alternatives, it is essential that the definitional question be avoided at the time that Congress considers the petition for legislation to establish expedited consideration of the Convention’s proposals. If definitions are on the table at that point in time there will be no unity of purpose because each party will contest the other party’s definition in order to defeat it before Congress or undermine it in such a way that it can later prevail against it at the polls. The lobbying dynamics that ensue will result, as they have before, in the bill’s deadlock in Congress.

Once the legislation for expedited consideration of the Convention’s proposals is in place, the Convention would proceed to present to Congress whatever proposal the majority of the delegates determines.

The broad parameters of these proposals should be determined in the understanding between the parties that produces the call for the Convention. The parameters would assure that the alternatives put forth would be of a sovereign nature, in character with the alternative proposed. Sovereignty is structured one way in statehood, another way in commonwealth, and in still another way in free association or independence. Whatever the proposal, it must have full legitimacy, otherwise, there would be no point in calling the Convention or in this whole exercise. Beyond that, the Convention must be free to structure the proposals as it pleases.

Such an agreement between the parties would be politically binding but not legally binding on the Convention, because a Constitutional Convention expresses the sovereign will of the people. If there should be a transgression of the agreement, the legitimacy of the Convention’s proposals would become a debatable issue before the Congress and ultimately before the people, who would have to act upon whatever proposal the Congress may accept. So, if the Commonwealth supporters present a proposal that does not provide for enforceable bilaterality in the compact, or if the statehooders propose an incorporated territory, opponents of such proposals would have the opportunity to fight this out in Congress, or if necessary, before the people when it comes up for ratification.

The Convention’s proposals will represent the will of the people of Puerto Rico, and they should be entitled to deference and respect before the Congress from the political parties that opposed them at the Convention. If the proposal before the Congress does not raise a question of legitimacy, the parties must exercise restraint in opposing the Convention’s proposals before the Congress. This again should be the subject of their understanding before setting in motion the call for the Convention. They should rule out partisan opposition in Congress, at least on the sensitive issues raised by each proposal.

If and when a perfected commonwealth is proposed, the question of whether Congress has the power to enter into a legally binding compact with the people of Puerto Rico should be an issue between the Convention and the Congress, not between the Convention and the opposing political parties from Puerto Rico.

If and when statehood is proposed, the question of whether schools under statehood should teach in Spanish and teach English as a second language should be an issue between the Congress and the Convention, not between the Convention and the opposing political parties in Puerto Rico.

If and when independence is proposed, the question of whether we and our children may retain U.S. citizenship under free association or independence should be an issue between the Convention and the Congress, not between the Convention and opposing political parties in Puerto Rico.

The Convention and the Congress must be allowed to work their will on these critical issues free from local politics in order that the people of Puerto Rico may have the fullest opportunity to realize their aspirations.

But this does not mean that the political debate between supporters of the alternatives would be over when the Convention makes a legitimate proposal to Congress. Far from it. If and when the Congress approves the proposal, it would then come before the people of Puerto Rico for ratification. At that time the full debate between the alternatives would open again.

For the first time, the people of Puerto Rico would have before them a concrete alternative to vote up or down. That is the moment when the question of definitions becomes really important. At that moment, the definition becomes meaningful because Congress has accepted it. The people would be called upon to ratify or reject the proposal, not as a pie in the sky but defined in very real terms. The campaign would be a debate not only on the terms and conditions set out by Congress, but also on the merits of the opposing alternative, which those who favor rejection of the proposal intend to put before the Congress.

Thus, a full debate on the status alternatives would take place under optimal conditions because the people would know the concrete terms of whatever proposal the Congress is willing to accept and that, if they vote for it, this time it is for keeps.

Why should we do this?

What is the importance of resolving the status issue once and for all?

That will be the subject of my next article.

Rafael Hernandez Colon is a three-term (12 years) former governor of Puerto Rico (1973-76 and 1985-92). He had earlier served as secretary of Justice (1965-67) and as president of the Senate (1969-72). He was president of the Popular Democratic Party for 19 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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