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December 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

The White House Joins The Puerto Rico Status Debate

Late last Friday afternoon, as Washington government offices were emptying and its bureaucrats rushing home to beat an expected winter storm swirling in from the west, the White House issued a press release of an Executive Order, signed two days earlier, indicating that the sixteen members of an interagency task force had been named to begin a study of the current political status of Puerto Rico and ways that it should be changed.

Executive Order 13183 continues a process first established by out-going President Bill Clinton in December 2000, just days before relinquishing the office to his successor. President George W. Bush kept the order in effect, although three years have passed without any implementation of its mandate. Ostensibly, the group’s job is to interview experts and stakeholders and review all of the legal findings relating to the current status of Puerto Rico and report to the President as to whether Puerto Rico should become a state, an independent country, continue as a U.S. commonwealth or move to some other constitutionally acceptable political status..

A late Friday press release almost guarantees limited press coverage, thereby offering a hint to the relative importance given the task force by the White House. Downplaying the work of the group is an understandable reaction, in that the issue is polarizing and, since Puerto Ricans do not vote for mainland candidates, there is little political advantage in moving the debate along. Convening the working group, however, fulfills a campaign promise made by the President to seek solutions for Puerto Rico’s colonial status. The group must issue its report within two years, although it could come sooner.

Currently Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States with a Constitution providing for local self-government. Recent polls and plebiscites reveal that hardly anyone is satisfied with the present arrangement, although no formula has been emerged that captures a majority of the island population’s vote, while satisfying the requirements of the U.S. Constitution respecting the movement of its territories from colonial to sovereign status.

The 1998 Young Bill (H.R. 856) was the last Congressional attempt to craft a ballot providing political status options that met the requirements of the U.S. Constitution. It would have offered Puerto Rican voters internationally recognized status options - Statehood and Separate Sovereignty, which included Independence and Free Association. Another option would have allowed voters to retain the current territorial status (without enhancements), with the caveat that it was colonial in nature and subject to future plebiscites, thereby assuring Puerto Rico’s ultimate attainment of a permanent political status.

The bill passed in the House of Representatives by one vote, but a companion bill (S 473) failed to come to a vote in the U.S. Senate. The Puerto Rican legislature then authorized a local vote using the Young Bill definitions, while adding a fifth choice, "none of the above," required by local law. Half the voters retreated to that option for reasons that are still debated today but, had Congress given the plebiscite the force of law, no fifth choice would have been required and Puerto Ricans would have been able to choose among real political status choices.

The task force, in effect, is taking up where the events of 1998 left off. The group is co-chaired by Noel J. Francisco, Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department and Ruben Barrales, the Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House. Every cabinet-level department of the government is represented on the task force, most nominees holding positions in the second and third tier of bureaucratic authority.

The activation of the task force has been the subject of political infighting by interested Puerto Rican political groups since the moment the President announced that he would retain it. Commonwealth supporters, led by members of the Calderon administration and its Washington lobbyists, have been trying to stall the process, aware that there is an entrenched conviction in Washington that the U.S. Constitution cannot accommodate the "enhancements" advocated by the Popular Democratic Party (PDP).

Statehooders on the other hand, now energized by the prospect of a possible return to political power in 2004, seem anxious for the Bush administration to become formally involved in a process of self-determination for the island. Skeptics, however, recalling the "dark-of-night" timing of the press release announcing the task force’s activation, suspect that the group is on a political treadmill and that no real action will occur until after the elections of 2004.

No information is available as to when the group will begin its deliberations and how it will conduct its business. We can be sure, however, that the entire pantheon of political gods of Puerto Rico will be ferreting out task force members to make their case for the differing governing arrangements that were brought before the committees of Congress during the Young Bill process.

What do you think?

Is the president's status task force a serious effort to develop a process of self determination for Puerto Rico or is it merely window dressing to aid his reelection campaign?

Please vote above!

This Week's Question:
Is the president's status task force a serious effort to develop a process of self determination for Puerto Rico or is it merely window dressing to aid his reelection campaign?

US . Residents
. PR
It’s a serious effort 54%
53% It’s not a serious effort 28%
12% Don't know 18%


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