White House Names Task Force To Seek Puerto Rico’s Ultimate Status… Bush Aide: Territorial Status May Not Be In Vote On Democratic Options… Gov’s U.S. Offices Head Tells Companies & Groups Puerto Rico Is A "Country"… Presidential Candidate Kerry Said Committed To Democratic Status… House Democrats Endorse "Commonwealth" Party House Candidate… Prats Creates Focus On Acevedo $23 Million Funding Failure

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

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White House Names Task Force To Seek Puerto Rico’s Ultimate Status

The White House late December 5th named members of the federal executive branch task force that then President Clinton established shortly before leaving office to work with leaders of Puerto Rico and the Congress to resolve the islands’ political status issue.

At the same time, President Bush also amended Clinton’s executive order to require the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status to report on the progress made towards resolving the issue every two years instead of annually.

Co-chairing the Task Force are the two Bush aides who will handle most of the issues: Bush’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Ruben Barrales, and Deputy Assistant Attorney for Legal Counsel General Noel Francisco.

Barrales has been Bush’s point person on Puerto Rico issues. Francisco recently joined the Justice Department office that serves as the federal government’s principal legal expert after serving in the office of the President’s legal counsel. Prior to the Bush Administration, he worked for a law firm headed by a former Assistant Attorney General for Legal Counsel, Charles Cooper, that lobbied in 1998 for some "commonwealth" party concepts rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In announcing the Task Force’s membership, a White House news release said that it would "seek to implement the policy set forth" in Clinton’s order. The policy is to address Puerto Rico status issues with leaders of the islands and the Congress -- and without preference among Puerto Rico’s future status options. It is also to enable Puerto Ricans to determine their preference among options for the islands’ future that are not incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the United States; and to implement such an option if chosen by a majority."

The White House release said that the Task Force will "outline a framework for moving forward," providing "advice and recommendations to the President and the Congress."

Barrales added that the Task Force will be "very aggressive" and seek input from "everyone" -- probably in public hearings. He also said that the group would meet early next year.

Criticism of the White House actions was led by Puerto Rico’s official representative to the U.S. Government, Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila, the "commonwealth" party’s 2004 gubernatorial candidate. Acevedo and current Governor Sila Calderon, also of the "commonwealth" party, lobbied against implementation of the Clinton order, presumably because federal officials have said that their status proposal is "impossible."

The proposal calls for Puerto Rico to be recognized as a nation in a binding union with the United States. Under the union, the Commonwealth would determine the application of federal laws and enter into agreements with foreign countries and the U.S. would continue to grant citizenship and all current program aid to Puerto Ricans.

Lobbying by Calderon and Acevedo is said to have delayed the initiation of the Task Force’s work from 2001. Bush and Barrales began the Task Force effort that year but later put it aside.

Bush extended the Clinton deadline for the Task Force’s first report from May 1, 2001 to August 1, 2001. He also named interim members of the Task Force. Barrales conducted an initial Task Force discussion by conference call and submitted the required report to the President on the Task Force’s organization.

Lobbying by Calderon and Acevedo against further action raised questions in the White House as to whether it would be worthwhile to proceed since the issue cannot be resolved without constructive action by the insular government. Other issues, such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., also caused the issue to be put on the back burner.

More recently, Bush and his aides became convinced that they needed to try to resolve the issue because of actions and plans by Calderon and Acevedo, including trying to interact with foreign nations as if Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation.

Despite his discomfort with the federal government judging his proposals for changes in federal policy regarding the islands before he has an opportunity to try to convince Puerto Ricans that the changes are possible, Acevedo said that the "commonwealth" party would work with the Task Force.

The resident commissioner also, however, charged that the White House was activating the Task Force to win votes for Bush in next year’s election but that it would not follow-through on the issue if Bush is re-elected.

Acevedo asserted that the extension of the deadline for the Task Force’s next report from one year to two substantiated the charge, claiming that it was done to extend the deadline past the 2004 election. However, the prior one year deadline would not have required the report before the election since one year from the announcement is a month after the 2004 election.

Another Acevedo criticism was that the Task Force is made up of "third-level" officials and that none are Puerto Rican. A White House official reportedly said that federal officials who have roots in Puerto Rico were not named to the Task Force to avoid the appearance of bias towards a particular status option, presumably statehood.

With Barrales and Francisco handling most of the Task Force’s issues, other members will be called upon as issues within their agency’s jurisdiction are raised. These members are:

  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development Gilbert Gonzalez;
  • Commerce Department Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Elizabeth Dial;
  • The Director of the Defense Department’s Office of Legislative Counsel, Victor Berson;
  • Associate Deputy Under Secretary of Education Kathleen Leos;
  • The Director of the Energy Department’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, Theresa Speake;
  • Health and Human Services Department Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Regina Schofield;
  • The Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of State and Local Coordination, Joshua Filler;
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Frank Jimenez;
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks David Smith;
  • Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Chris Spear;
  • State Department Senior Policy Advisor Leo DiBenigno;
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Governmental Affairs Sam Reid;
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs Tony Fratto; and
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Intergovernmental Affairs William McLemore.

Bush Aide: Territorial Status May Not Be In Vote On Democratic Options

Just before the White House announced the actions on the Task Force, a key Bush aide who had worked on the issue said that Puerto Rico’s current territorial status may not be included as an option in a Puerto Rico status referendum that the Administration may propose.

The referendum would be between the options for a fully democratic governing arrangement: the territory becoming a State of the U.S. or a sovereign nation. The aide said that the options could be defined as permanent union in the case of statehood and separation in the case of national sovereignty.

The aide also explained that the Justice Department may conclude that a "commonwealth" option -- traditionally included in Puerto Rico’s status debate -- would not legally fit in such a referendum. The U.S. Constitution prevents territories from having voting representation in the Congress and the election of the President and the "commonwealth" party’s status proposal is "not a viable option," according to the aide and other federal officials.

The statements were similar to a statement in 2001 by Task Force Co-Chair Barrales that Bush supported Puerto Ricans choosing their ultimate status and the options were statehood and independence.

After the White House announcement of actions related to the Task Force, however, Barrales would only say that all proposals for Puerto Rico’s future status are welcome and will be considered.

Gov’s U.S. Offices Head Tells Companies & Groups Puerto Rico Is A "Country"

The head of Puerto Rico’s insular government’s offices in the States recently told executives of major corporations and organizations in Washington that the islands are a "country."

Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) Executive Director Mari Carmen Aponte made the statement at a reception at PRFAA’s headquarters. The event celebrated the 2004 international conference of the charitable fund-raising organization, United Way, which will be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico next May 5-7.

In addition to United Way national and international executives, the gathering included executives from corporate giants Boeing, Marriot, and Pitney Bowes, as well as organizations including the American Bar Association and others.

"We feel extremely proud to serve as the host country of the United Way conference," Aponte told the gathering December 4th.

PRFAA issued a news release December 9th ‘explaining’ that, "Biennially, the United Way holds a kickoff reception of its World Assembly at the host country’s embassy."

Unlike Aponte and her press aides, however, a United Way statement did not suggest that Puerto Rico is a sovereign nation. It said that the conference would bring together non-governmental representatives from "territories" as well countries. Puerto Rico is unincorporated territory of the United States.

Aponte is an appointee of Governor Calderon and the landlady of Resident Commissioner Acevedo Vila. In addition to proposing that Puerto Rico be recognized as a nation, Calderon and Acevedo say that Puerto Rico is a "nation" already.

Presidential Candidate Kerry Said Committed To Democratic Status

Senator John Kerry (MA), one of the Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination, is committed to work "for a fully-democratic governing arrangement," a spokesman said this week.

Kerry "is committed to work with Puerto Rico’s leaders and the Congress to enable Puerto Ricans to obtain a status that is not subject to the federal government’s powers over unincorporated territory from among all the options for a fully-democratic governing arrangement," spokesman Luis Navarro said.

The Kerry representative made the statement at a forum in Washington hosted by the National Puerto Rican Coalition, an organization of groups of individuals in the States who are of Puerto Rican origin and of manufacturers headquartered in the States that have operations in Puerto Rico.

Some of the presidential candidates did not participate in the forum, including front-runner Howard Dean and retired General Wesley Clark.

The only other noteworthy statement was made by the representative of Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT), Campaign Manager Craig Smith. He said that federal officials would try to work with whatever type of status process Puerto Ricans propose. Puerto Rican statehooders favor a referendum on the issue coordinated with the federal government. Acevedo and other nationalists favor a convention to design a nationhood proposal that can unite "commonwealthers" and supporters of independence.

Smith has had a major contract from the Calderon Administration. Lieberman has previously said Puerto Ricans are entitled to a fully-democratic governing arrangement.

House Democrats Endorse "Commonwealth" Party House Candidate

Two groups of House Democrats this week endorsed the candidacy of the "commonwealth" party’s nominee to succeed Acevedo, Puerto Rico Senator Roberto Prats.

Backing Prats were the Democratic House Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The endorsements were arranged by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (NJ). The "commonwealth" party’s primary supporter in the Congress, Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), is a close ally of Menendez’s and Menendez has been a reliable "commonwealth" party supporter.

Arranging the endorsements was easy for Menendez because Prats’ principal opponent, statehood party candidate Luis Fortuno, is a member of the Republican National Committee.

Prats Creates Focus On Acevedo $23 Million Funding Failure

"Commonwealth" party congressional candidate Prats unintentionally generated a focus on a failure of running-mate Acevedo to secure from the Congress $23 million proposed by President Bush for Puerto Rico.

The funds were for the passenger rail system being built in the San Juan metro area to alleviate automobile congestion.

Bush proposed a $43 million grant for the project during the current fiscal year. The U.S. House of Representatives, in which Acevedo serves, and Senate negotiators have agreed to cut the funding to $20 million.

House approval came Monday as an agreement between House and Senate negotiators on massive appropriations bill for a number of federal agencies was approved. The Senate is expected to consider the agreement January 20th.

Prats generated the focus on Acevedo’s failure by speaking to reporters about the grant.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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