Why Powell Opposed Calderon's Foreign Pretenses...The Truth About State’s Puerto Rico "Desk"

August 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. .. Why Powell Opposed Calderon's Foreign Pretenses

The U.S. Department of State has acted in recent weeks to rein in Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon’s ("commonwealth" party/no national party) foreign ventures.

On August 6th, Secretary of State Colin Powell directed U.S. ambassadors throughout Latin America and in some European capitals to remind their host governments that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and it does not have authority to enter into international agreements or organizations without the approval of its national government.

After Calderon, her resident commissioner in Washington, and her secretary of state questioned the news report that revealed the directive, a State Department spokesman gave reporters a carefully worded statement reiterating Powell’s "Action Message" and explaining the reasons for the position.

The statement added that Puerto Rican officials should not be accorded official courtesies abroad equivalent to those routinely granted to heads of state (national governments) or cabinet members of national governments. This was a clear reference to Calderon and Puerto Rico Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado, who have sought such treatment from foreign governments.

Touching off the federal effort to curb the Calderon Administration’s international activities was an inquiry from the Government of Nicaragua to the U.S. embassy in the country. The inquiry sought the U.S. position on regular Puerto Rican participation in the annual summit of presidents and prime ministers of Spain and Portugal and the countries of the American hemisphere that primarily speak Spanish or Portuguese.

The inquiry was prompted by Calderon Administration lobbying for a seat at the summit -- this year and permanently. Calderon and Mercado began the lobbying in earnest in preparation for last year’s summit but failed to obtain it then when U.S. officials got wind of what they were doing at the last minute and advised the summit’s organizers of U.S. opposition.

The Government of the Dominican Republic was the focus of last year’s efforts by both the federal and territorial governments since the Dominican Republic was the site of the summit. This month’s Powell order was directed to the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia as well as in Nicaragua because Bolivia is the site of this year’s summit. The cable was also sent to the U.S. ambassadors in all of the countries that participate in the summit to ensure that the governments of all participating governments understand Puerto Rico’s territorial status -- and U.S. objections.

Nicaragua reportedly became a focus of lobbying by Calderon and Mercado this year after they failed to convince the governments of Spain, Panama, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic to champion permanent Puerto Rican participation. The lobbying ultimately led to the Powell instructions.

The directive noted that Calderon had not asked for U.S. approval to participate in the summit and advised that approval would be "difficult to grant given the predominantly political nature" of the summit.

Federal policy permits territorial and state governments to engage in international activities of a non-political (foreign policy) and non-binding nature. Included are educational and other cultural exchanges, trade missions, sport organizations, and similar activities.

But even territories that may not permanently be U.S. territory (‘unincorporated territories’) such as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (and all four other current U.S. territories) cannot enter into international agreements or organizations that make international policy or impose binding international obligations. They lack the requisite national government sovereignty.

As the State Department’s press statement explained, federal approval is necessary for territorial agreements with foreign governments or participation in international organizations because the federal government is responsible for the foreign policy of the entire country. Approval enables the federal government to ensure consistency with the nation’s foreign policy and to ensure that U.S. local governments do not incur obligations for which foreign governments may hold the U.S. responsible.

The State Department has become increasingly concerned about Calderon and Mercado’s international activities. The concerns are due to repeated failures to seek federal approval for agreements with foreign governments and participation in international organizations as well as the misleading use of the words "nation" and "country" to describe Puerto Rico to foreign governments.

State officials sprang into action this month to avert a recurrence of what happened -- and almost happened -- last year with Calderon in the "Ibero-American Summit of Heads of States and Governments." With Puerto Rico’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, as host, Calderon and Mercado secretly initially arranged for Calderon to be greeted on arrival in the Dominican Republic as a head of a state or government and to be treated at the summit as if she were one.

They planned for her to be seated at the summit with the heads of state and government, to speak in the summit, and to be in the official photograph of the summit’s heads of state and government. The plans were so advanced that Calderon’s office ultimately announced them and Calderon sent her body measurements to the summit’s organizers so she could be given a dress similar to the shirts that the male heads of state and government were going to wear for the official photograph.

Tipped off to the plans just before the summit, State Department officials -- with the approval of aides to President Bush at the White House -- informed Dominican officials and others that Calderon’s planned participation would be inappropriate. Dominican and summit officials agreed but Calderon did not learn of the change in plans before she departed Puerto Rico for the Dominican Republic.

She was shocked and angered when she was: not received on arrival at the Dominican Republic in the way that the heads of states and national governments were; made to enter the summit hall through the public entrance rather than the special entrance for national leaders; seated in the third row of the audience rather than on the platform with national leaders; not permitted to speak in the summit meetings, and not included in the summit photograph.

Although she was treated as a high-ranking guest -- as the premier of the British territory of Belize was -- Calderon spent most of her time in her hotel room as Mercado and her aides tried in vain to recover the summit participation that she had sought and expected.

Last year’s summit was not the first time that Calderon and Mercado had sought participation in an international organization that the U.S. opposes without seeking the approval of the U.S. State Department. Earlier, Calderon secretly sought associate membership in the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). She only informed federal officials when ACS officials asked whether the U.S. approved.

It did not. The organization takes policy positions and includes the Cuban dictatorship as a member. In fact, the meeting that Calderon planned to go to adopted a resolution criticizing U.S. policy. (Due to the U.S. position and the ACS’ acquiescence, only Mercado ultimately went to the meeting.)

In this case, U.S. opposition to Puerto Rican membership had previously been conveyed to Puerto Rican officials -- perhaps accounting for Calderon’s seeking admission into the organization secretly. The administration of Calderon’s predecessor, Pedro Rossello (statehood/D), had asked if the federal government would support Puerto Rican associate membership. It did not pursue the matter when the State Department sent a letter to the territorial government saying that it would not support Puerto Rican participation.

The State Department has also reportedly had to oppose Calderon efforts to be included in the International Labor Organization and the World Food and Agricultural Organization.

U.S. officials have, additionally, had problems with agreements that the Calderon Administration has sought with Chile, Panama, and the Dominican Republic without federal clearance. Mercado actually worked out an agreement with Chile -- between "two countries" he said -- without U.S. officials learning of it until afterwards.

An agreement with the Dominican Republic was reached after U.S. officials intervened objecting to a reference to Puerto Rico as a "nation" and other provisions and Calderon relented on the eve of the announced signing.

A planned agreement with Panama did not occur after U.S. officials learned of it. Calderon had flown to the country in a private jet to meet with its president and sign the agreement without seeking U.S. clearance.

Calderon’s unauthorized foreign policy ventures have also prompted concern in the Congress. Then Representative Ben Gilman (R-NY), who left office at the beginning of this year, wrote Powell last year expressing objections and outlining the basic federal policy that Powell and other State Department officials reiterated this month. Gilman had been the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Representative Jerry Weller (R-IL), a member of the House leadership, supported Powell’s directive during a visit to Puerto Rico this week.

The territory’s representative in the Congress, however, supported Calderon and Mercado’s positions and actions on the issue. Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila, the "commonwealth" party’s proposed successor to Calderon, joined the governor and Mercado in initially disputing the existence of the Powell directive.

He also supported Calderon and Mercado’s foreign affairs efforts. He said that they were intended to help Puerto Rico economically and coordinated with the federal State Department.

Acevedo further asserted that "commonwealth" (which is the name of Puerto Rico’s territorial government rather than a political status) gave Puerto Rico foreign affairs powers (which he did not define). And he said that the agenda for the "development" of "commonwealth" includes the federal government granting Puerto Rico greater foreign affairs powers. He has suggested that he will pursue this agenda if elected governor in 2004.

Acevedo is a principal author and advocate of his party’s proposal that Puerto Rico be recognized as a nation in permanent union with the United States with the power to enter into international economic agreements. (The proposal also calls for the federal government to grant the Commonwealth the power to determine the application of federal laws and to continue to grant U.S. citizenship to individuals born in Puerto Rico and all aid now granted to individuals in Puerto Rico).

Mercado also said that all of the Calderon Administration’s international activities were coordinated with the federal State Department. He and Calderon also professed ignorance of any concerns about the activities on the part of federal officials.

State Department officials, however, said that Calderon and Mercado have avoided meeting with them to hear about the concerns. They also said that the concerns have been expressed privately to the Calderon Administration in writing.

Additionally, they said that Calderon has had lobbyists try to convince Powell and other top Bush Administration officials that the Commonwealth should be recognized as having greater foreign affairs authority while she and Mercado

have avoided discussing the issue with other senior State Department officials.

They stressed that the positions expressed by Powell and other State Department officials this week had been expressed before.

The Truth About State’s Puerto Rico "Desk"

In outlining the federal position regarding the Calderon Administration’s foreign affairs ventures, a State Department spokesman denied that the department had a Puerto Rico "desk" as was also reported in the territory.

The department has "desks" (officers) for foreign countries. The desks monitor developments related to the country and coordinate policy and activities between the departmental headquarters in Washington and U.S. embassies. The officers are important information resources and communicators but not policymakers.

While the department denied having a "Puerto Rico desk," it has had a Puerto Rico officer for some time. The country officer for the Dominican Republic -- the Dominican "desk" has served as a clearinghouse for developments concerning Puerto Rico and has been called the "desk officer" for Puerto Rico.

The officer has also served as the "desk officer" for the U.S. Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory on the other side of Puerto Rico.

The news report of the designation made officials aware that the use of the "desk" terminology could be misunderstood -- especially in light of Gov. Calderon’s foreign affairs dalliances.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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