White House Activating Puerto Rico Status Task Force

October 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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White House Activating Puerto Rico Status Task Force

President Bush’s point person on Puerto Rico’s political status and federal relations notified insular leaders and others during the past week that the Bush Administration was in the process of activating the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.

The calls by President Bush’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Ruben Barrales, confirmed a statement by territorial Senator Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer (statehood party/R) that was reported in the Puerto Rico Herald two and a half months ago. Senator Ramirez has a good working relationship with the Bush Administration through White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

The first public hint of the confirmation came on October 18, 2003 from Puerto Rico’s official representative to the federal government -- and the territory’s "commonwealth" party gubernatorial candidate, Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá. Resident Commissioner Acevedo reiterated criticisms of the presidential initiative that he has made since it was launched two and three quarter years ago. His opposition is not surprising because an impossible proposal for the territory’s future status developed under his leadership led to the establishment of the Task Force and explaining this is one of the Task Force’s primary chores.

The proposal calls for the territory to be recognized as a nation but in a permanent union with the U.S. Under the arrangement, the Commonwealth government would supposedly be able to determine the application of federal laws and enter into agreements with foreign governments. The plan also calls for the federal government to continue to grant citizenship based on birth in Puerto Rico and to supply all aid now given to Puerto Ricans.

Resident Commissioner Acevedo urged Puerto Ricans to vote against the territory’s real status options in a December 1998 referendum on the grounds that his party’s (impossible, contradictory, one-sided, and inadvisable) "commonwealth option" that was not on the ballot. Due to a variety of factors, a bare majority of the vote was against the real options: statehood; independence; nationhood in a non-binding power-sharing association with the U.S., and Puerto Rico’s current territorial status. (Statehood won the overwhelming majority of the votes cast for status options.)

Then President Bill Clinton responded to the inconclusive result by pledging to work to clarify Puerto Rico’s future status options and to enable Puerto Ricans to clarify their choice among these options. The idea of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s status came out of a meeting that President Clinton held in June 2000 with the principal leaders of the territory’s three status vision-based political parties and representatives of the territories committees of the U.S. Congress.

Then Governor Pedro Rossello (statehood/D) and Independence Party President Ruben Berrios suggested that President Clinton establish a formal mechanism to continue the work on the issue past his term. Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/ no national party) then asked President Clinton not to act on the suggestion before the 2000 election.

Mr. Berrios also suggested that commitments to continue the process be sought from the two major presidential candidates. Then Vice President Al Gore made the commitment and then Texas Governor George W. Bush supported the initiative, although he said that it had come late in the Clinton Administration.

President Clinton issued an executive order establishing the Task Force in December 2000, after the election and a month before leaving office, along with a further directive to the Cabinet. Although President George W. Bush rescinded many of President Clinton’s late-term policy orders, he continued the Status Task Force executive order with a slight amendment through an April 2001 executive order.

The directives establish that it is federal Executive Branch policy to –

  • Address Puerto Rico’s status issue with leaders of the territory and the U.S. Congress and without preference among the options;
  • Clarify the options to enable Puerto Ricans to choose among options that are not incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws of the U.S.; and
  • Help Puerto Ricans obtain a governing arrangement that provides for a national government democracy if a majority chooses such an option.

The Task Force is to be co-chaired by the President’s principal Puerto Rico staffer and a representative from the office of the U.S. Attorney General and include designees of all Cabinet members. It is to conduct an on-going effort on the issue with the leaders of Puerto Rico and the territories committees of the U.S. Congress focused on clarifying the options and enabling Puerto Ricans to choose among them.

In addition to providing advice to the President and the Congress as needed, the Task Force is required to submit annual progress reports to the President on August 1. The Task Force is also to continue to exist until Puerto Rico becomes a State of the U.S. or an independent nation.

The directives, additionally, note that --

  • The question of what Puerto Rico’s ultimate status raises questions about economic and social policies;
  • Puerto Ricans do not have any votes in their national government;
  • The insular political parties all advocate a status different from the present;
  • The 1998 referendum rejected all of the recognized options;
  • Many of the issues are federal questions;
  • Puerto Ricans have repeatedly asked the federal government to clarify their options and the process for realizing an option and the U.S. has a responsibility to answer; and
  • U.S. Presidents and the U.S. Congress in 1998 supported a Puerto Rican status choice.

Mr. Barrales and his colleagues began work on the Task Force just in time for their first progress report to the President in August 2001. Where, Mr. Barrales and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Legal Counsel Sheldon Bradshaw were designated as Co-Chairmen. Fifteen other agency representatives were also designated as interim members.

The initial report was delayed following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. (a little more than a month after the initial report). However, other issues and anti-Task Force lobbying by Governor Calderon and Resident Commissioner Acevedo put the effort off even more. The lobbying was said to include contacts with senior White House officials by former Republican National Committee Chairman and Bush family political confidant Charlie Black, whose firm is reportedly paid $100,000 per month by the Calderon Administration.

A White House source reports that the lobbying never convinced the Bush Administration that the issue should not be pursued but said that it caused some reconsideration, including on the question of whether it was worthwhile to move ahead if the territorial administration and its substantial lobbying resources would try to frustrate any constructive action.

Recently, however, Mr. Barrales has been saying that the issue had been left unaddressed for too long.

Ironically, actions and statements by Governor Calderon and Resident Commissioner Acevedo convinced him and others -- particularly in the State and Justice Departments -- of this. The actions included Governor Calderon repeatedly seeking sovereign nation recognition in contacts with foreign governments -- including both personally and in agreement terms. The statements included Resident Commissioner Acevedo’s stated plans to try to have a Puerto Rico convention conducted if he is elected governor that would try to obtain a majority for his impossible future status proposal and then try to force the federal government to accept it because it represents the ‘self-determination’ of the people of Puerto Rico.

Resident Commissioner Acevedo’s pre-emptive attack on the Task Force was made in a speech to party members where--

  • He asserted that the participation of Puerto Ricans in the Task Force’s work is "not guaranteed," although the Task Force’s purpose is to work with Puerto Ricans on the issue and the executive order requires it to;
  • He contended that any status initiative should originate in Puerto Rico -- ignoring Puerto Rican requests, including from his party, that the federal government clarify Puerto Rico’s status options and the process for obtaining an option as well as react to already-made Puerto Rican status proposals such as the one he led his party in developing;
  • He charged that the Task Force had accomplished nothing in four years -- although it was established two and three quarter years ago and that he, Governor Calderon, and their well-connected lobbyists have lobbied for it not to be active; and
  • He said its activation in an election year is suspicious -- although it is over a year until the next election and White House officials have previously said that the Task Force would resume its work when security and other urgent time demands on officials permitted.

In his harangue, Resident Commissioner Acevedo termed the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status an "ill-conceived initiative," that was a "repetition of past errors," in efforts to enable Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s ultimate status. He also said that its activation indicated that it would not "begin its work on a serious basis." Under questioning from reporters later, however, he said that he would still be willing to work with the Task Force.

With Mr. Barrales’ authorization, three leaders of the insular Republican Party committee then announced the Task Force’s imminent activation. The three were Republican National Committee Members Luis Fortuno and Zoraida Fonallades and territorial committee Secretary Carlos Chardon and they held a news conference on October 20, 2003. Mr. Fortuno and Ramriez de Ferrer are the two Republicans among four candidates seeking the statehood party nomination for Resident Commissioner, the territory’s official representative to the federal government with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mr. Barrales called other Puerto Ricans with the news later that day, saying that he expected an official, written announcement in as soon as a matter of hours but possibly later on October 22, 2003.

The news prompted Governor Calderon to say that she had been notified of the Bush Administration’s decision to proceed with the Task Force four days before the Puerto Rico Republicans’ announcement. She weakly suggested criticism of the initiative by saying that any status initiative had to have the active participation of Puerto Ricans, raising a theme that she and Resident Commissioner Acevedo expressed a few days before.

The U.S. House of Representatives member closest to Resident Commissioner Acevedo and Governor Calderon, Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) reiterated that "the process has to start with a Puerto Rico theme." Representative Gutierrez has often represented "commonwealth" party positions, including in his efforts to prevent the U.S. Congress’ passage of a 1998 bill that would have enabled Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s islands’ ultimate status among all of the real options. Representative Gutierrez never succeeded in getting more than 10 votes in the 435-vote U.S. House for the "commonwealth" positions but he helped generate right-wing Republican opposition from conservatives that narrowed the U.S. House’s passage of the bill, which had been sponsored by Republicans as well as Democrats, and ultimately blocked Senate passage of the measure.

No announcement has been made as of this writing on October 24, 2003; however, the early death on October 21, 2003 of the former Puerto Rico Governor Luis A. Ferre could be the reason why.

Former Governor Ferre was the longtime Chairman of the territorial Republican committee as well as the patriarch of the statehood party. He had a close relationship with Andrew Card and the president’s father, former President Bush, and was well known and appreciated by the current president. Governor Ferre also had personally lobbied Andrew Card for the Task Force’s activation -- and was given credit for the activation by Fortuno, Fonallades, and Chardon in their announcement the day before his death.

Ferre’s death diverted Mr. Barrales and other Bush aides from the announcement of the Task Force. Mr. Barrales -- and others -- worked to have President Bush issue a public statement from Southeast Asia, a letter of condolences ready for the President to sign on his return from his Asian trip, and representation of the president and his father to attend Governor Ferre’s funeral on October 23, 2003. He was one of two designated representatives along with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, a Floridian who also had long ties to "Don Luis."

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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