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The San Juan Star

Puerto Rico’s Stealth "Diplomacy" Exposed

By Ricardo Aponte

August 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The San Juan Star. All rights reserved. 

As long as Puerto Rico remains a territorial commonwealth under the 1952 local constitution, the federal government will retain the same full and plenary authority it has had since the Treaty of Paris entered into force in 1899. Obviously, that includes all foreign policy matters relating to the territory.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the U.S. State Department recently reiterated its long standing policy that Puerto Rico can not conduct its own foreign relations. What is surprising is that the press such a hard time confirming the existence of a cable that is unclassified. It was confirmed to Robert Friedman of The Star by a State Department officer, and those who deny its existence I encourage them to submit a Freedom of Information Act request if they want to see it.

The repeated and unrelenting attempts by the current Governor and Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress to conduct separate trade and other international relations left the U.S. State Department little choice. Official guidance had to be provided to U.S. embassies in Latin American and the Caribbean exposing Calderon’s "diplomacy" as unauthorized and beyond the scope of the local government’s competence.

If the Governor and the non-voting Congressman from Puerto Rico had no knowledge of any official communication shutting down their controversial foreign relations initiative, there is a good reason. Local leaders are out of the loop on the guidance to embassies simply because the U.S. does not direct formal diplomatic communications to local governments in domestic U.S. jurisdictions. Also, those foreign dipolomats quoted by local media outlets, such as the ambassador for the Venezuelan communist regime are obviously not privy to internal State Department documents.

What these wayward territorial officials cannot deny is that this is not the first time their renegade foreign policy schemes backfired. Governor Calderon was on the scene in 1986 when the U.S. Secretary of State had to personally intervene to stop the local government from perpetrating a fraud upon the government of Japan by signing a so-called "treaty" to define a separate "bilateral" tax policy. What Calderon and Resident Commissioner Acevedo Vila failed to realize is that their recent efforts to establish an international legal personality separate from the U.S. increasingly is seen in Washington as an illegitimate and propagandistic campaign of unauthorized "creeping" international separatism.

Indeed, on December 20, 2001, the former Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Congressman Ben Gilman, wrote to Secretary Powell in response to frequent press reports on the Puerto Rico Governor’s attempts to insinuate herself into international governmental affairs. Gilman wrote that, "…federal law establishing the present commonwealth structure for territorial self-government limits local powers to matters not otherwise governed by federal law…Federal policy can respect local cultural heritage and support the development goals of each territory, but local autonomy is not license for usurpation of federal powers."

While the cable to U.S. embassies is not yet in the public domain, from what has been learned it is entirely consistent with routine policy guidance from the U.S. State Department over the years. For example, the U.S. State Department Office of Legal Adviser prepares an annual report on foreign policy law, published each year by the International Law Institute as the "Digest of United States Practice in International Law". In the 2001 edition the Digest reported that:

"Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States…The U.S. federal government has full responsibility for the conduct of foreign relations of all areas subject to United States jurisdiction, including all states, territories, and possessions…the U.S. federal government has prerogative with regard to any international agreements that affect the U.S. or its constituent units, including territories such as Puerto Rico."

While the Digest confirms the status of Puerto Rico as a political subdivision of the United States, the U.S. State Department limits its analysis to whether or not the territory’s activities are "…inconsistent or interfere with U.S. foreign policy". Obviously, that does not define sufficiently clear boundaries to prevent breaches of protocol and improper practices by the local government.

That is why the U.S. had to intervene again in 2001 when Calderon’s application for ACS membership. The Calderon Administration may have thought it was putting pressure on the U.S. to accept an international role for the local government, but the Governor may actually have been used in a failed attempt to make the U.S. appear to be repressive. The ACS scheme back-fired because the world knows Puerto Rico can have independence and join ACS any time it makes that choice in an informed act of self-determination.

However, the ACS incident underscores the need clarify Puerto Rico’s capacity in the foreign policy context. Unless there is movement toward separate nationhood, Puerto Rico should be treated the same as a state, county, or city government. It should receive the same courtesy and support as any other political subdivision of the U.S. in international trade, educational, cultural, scientific or social program of international organizations.

As long as the U.S. flag flies over Puerto Rico there should be a simple rule: If the states, counties and cities can do it, then the territories can do it on the same basis. The only distinction made should be that Puerto Rico is not a state and does not have reserved powers under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as the states do.

The State department can continue its vague "case-by-case" method for deciding when the local government has stepped over the line, but the controversies will continue. The cable from Secretary Powell makes it clear that Puerto Rico will be treated the same as any other U.S. domestic political subdivision, unless and until its status is changed to that of a separate nation.

Ricardo Aponte is chairman of the Young Republicans Federation of Puerto Rico

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