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September 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Is Puerto Rico a Country or Part of the United States?

From time-to-time Herald readers offer suggestions for Hot Button Issue topics. One recently received is apt, in view of Governor Sila Calderon’s continuing confusion as to whether she is the chief executive of a U.S. Commonwealth or the ruling Sovereign of an independent country. Our reader wants to know if you think that Puerto Rico is a country or part of the United States.

Last week the U.S. Department of State offered its opinion in the matter by releasing letters that Secretary of State Colin Powell had sent to selected U.S. embassies in early August, asserting that the Puerto Rico government, a territory of the United States, was misrepresenting itself as a sovereign state in an attempt to gain admission to the Caribbean States Association and other international organizations represented by heads of state.

The existence of the letters had been reported in San Juan newspapers weeks before but the Forteleza disclaimed any knowledge of them. Calderon told reporters "my relations with President Bush are excellent," and went on to assure the island that her government always sought the guidance of the State Department in matters of foreign policy. According to Herald sources these statements so angered Foggy Bottom that it took the unusual step to make public the language of Powell’s communications with his ambassadors stationed in the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Curacao, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Guyana, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain and Venezuela.

The cables mentioned efforts by Governor Calderon and her Secretary of State, Ferdinand Mercado, to urge governments in the region to sign memoranda "that contain language reserved for agreements between sovereign nations." Of particular concern to Powell was Calderon’s attempt to gain permanent status at the Ibero-American Summit, to be held in Bolivia this October. At last year’s summit, held in the Dominican Republic, the Calderon government made another attempt to be seated as an equal, a move thwarted at the last minute when the State Department informed the Dominican government of its displeasure.

The Commonwealth’s dalliance in international matters extends to commerce as well. During Gov. Calderon’s term in office, she has logged thousands of overseas miles in an attempt to sign bilateral "trade agreements" with such governments as Chile, Nicaragua and Panama. Currently she is attempting to include Puerto Rico as a part of the America Free Commerce Agreement. These forays caught up with her last week as well.

The Associated Press reported that Peter Watson, Director of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), complained in a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce that the Government of Puerto Rico efforts to "misappropriate federal authority over exterior relations in the name of autonomy is a chronic problem that is a consequence of the lack of definition of Puerto Rico’s political status."

The federal government has made no objection to Puerto Rico promoting its trade abroad; so long as it does not commit the United States to obligations and is similar to the manner in which states of the union seek business with foreign governments and enterprises. Last week, for example, the governments of Puerto Rico and Uruguay signed an agreement to promote joint investments and cultural exchanges, a deal which the State Department authorized. Aware of the sensitivity of the issue, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle characterized the pact as "not a treaty" but an agreement for commercial exchange.

Ms. Calderon’s ambivalence about Puerto Rico’s status is at the root of her conflicts with agencies of the United States Government, the Congress and the White House. She sometimes refers to Puerto Rico as a "nation" and sometimes as a "partner" of the United States. Never has it been heard of her to say that Puerto Rico is a "part of the United States," which Washington insists that it is. This is apparent in the tone of her government’s advertising in mainland newspapers. A recent full-page ad in "The Hill," a publication devoted to news of Congressional doings, serves as an example.

The ad, apparently intended to attract readers to a Commonwealth website, is entitled, "A Wealth of Things In Common." In its images and rhetoric, the ad conveys a message more appropriate to an address by one sovereign nation to another than that of a territory addressing its sovereign state. The text hails a "shared relationship," that includes history, commerce and defense. It speaks of the United States as a "trading partner." It extols Puerto Rican and American soldiers fighting "side by side," as if they wore different uniforms. In the way in which one nation reminds another that it has offered assistance in time of need, the ad concludes, "When the U.S. was struck by terrorists on September 11th, Puerto Rico emergency workers were among the first on the scene."

So, who’s got it right, Sila Calderon or Colin Powell? Is Puerto Rico a country or a part of the United States?

Please vote above.

This Week's Question:
Is Puerto Rico a country or a part of the United States?

(US Mainland Residents, please vote on the left; PR Residents on right)

US . Residents
. PR
It's a country. 27%
77% It's part of the United States. 73%


.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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