President’s Puerto Rico Status Coordinators Discuss Consulting Islanders… Clark Sticks With Puerto Rico Democracy Policy Despite Threat… Kerry Developing His Puerto Rico Status Policy

January 30, 2004
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President’s Puerto Rico Status Coordinators Discuss Consulting Islanders

The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status held its first actual meeting January 28th in the White House.

The meeting was organizational in nature. It formally began the Task Force’s work and enabled White House Co-Chair Ruben Barrales to brief members on the effort.

The Task Force was established by then President Clinton in December 2000 through a formal ‘executive order.’ Clinton issued the order in response to proposals made by Puerto Rico Independence Party President Ruben Berrios and then Governor Pedro Rossello (statehood/D) at a ‘summit’ Clinton held with Puerto Rican leaders and congressional representatives that June.

A principal purpose was to ensure that the next president of the United States dealt with the issue, maintaining the focus that Clinton devoted to it.

President Bush continued the Task Force through amendments to Clinton’s executive order. The amendments only delayed the deadline for the Task Force’s reports.

In addition to the executive order, direction is also given to the Task Force and the federal government’s executive branch as a whole through a formal memorandum to the heads of executive branch agencies that Clinton issued.

The Task Force is required to work with Puerto Ricans and the Congress to enable Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s ultimate political status. It includes representatives of each agency included in the President’s Cabinet.

The Task Force is intended to function primarily as a coordinating network, with agencies involved as issues within their jurisdiction arise. Because of the issues, the White House and the Department of Justice will handle most issues. The Department of State will help determine positions on many others. Other agencies will have less involvement.

How to obtain Puerto Rican views on the issue was a principal topic of the meeting, a participant reported. When the Task Force’s reactivation was announced by the White House last December 6th, Barrales identified obtaining Puerto Rican views as a priority.

Curiously, after the meeting, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/no national party) released a letter she had written to President Bush two days after the Task Force’s reactivation was announced suggesting that it would not work with Puerto Ricans on the issue -- contrary to the presidential orders and Barrales’ public statements.

Calderon has opposed the Task Force since Berrios and Rossello suggested it in June 2000. When Clinton agreed to their request, Calderon asked him to delay the Task Force’s establishment until after the November 2000 elections. Her hope was that, if elected governor, she could then convince him to not act.

Calderon has been lobbying throughout the Bush Administration for it not to activate the Task Force. She recognizes that federal officials will turn down her "commonwealth" party’s vision of the territory’s future "commonwealth" status, discouraging Puerto Ricans from supporting it. She also does not want federal officials to take positions on the issues until her party obtains a coalition with independence advocates in favor of her party’s proposal and demands that the United States implement it as the ‘self-determination will’ of the people of Puerto Rico.

The "commonwealth" party’s status proposal was developed under the leadership of Calderon’s official representative in the Congress and her party’s candidate to succeed her, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila. It calls for the territory to be recognized as a nation in a permanent union to which the United States would be bound. The Commonwealth (the local government) would be granted the powers to determine the application of federal laws in Puerto Rico and to enter into binding agreements with foreign governments. The U.S. would continue to grant citizenship and all aid now given to Puerto Ricans.

Federal officials have consistently rejected the proposal as a legally impossible, impractical, and unwanted combination of contradictory aspects of different statuses.

A conference call ‘meeting’ of interim members of the coordinating group was held in 2001 shortly before the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States. The attack helped put the Puerto Rico status issue on the White House’s ‘back burner’ as requested by Calderon.

Clark Sticks With Puerto Rico Democracy Policy Despite Threat

Democratic presidential nomination candidate Wesley Clark this week maintained his January 21st pledge to work to enable Puerto Rico to have a fully-democratic governing arrangement despite a threat from the top leaders of the territory’s "commonwealth" party that doing so would prevent him from obtaining the support of "commonwealthers" among Puerto Rico’s large delegation to the convention that will select the Democratic nominee.

In saying that "My Puerto Rico policy will not change," Clark also expanded on his reasons for not including Puerto Rico’s current territorial status among the options for the islands’ ultimate political status. The retired general’s statements rebutted criticisms by the Puerto Rico Democratic Committee Chair, Senator Roberto Prats, the "commonwealth" party’s candidate for resident commissioner.

It was Prats who first threatened Clark with "commonwealthers" withholding support from him. Clark’s campaign brushed off the threat, however. It noted that Prats, party president and current resident commissioner Acevedo Vila, and other party leaders have already endorsed former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Further, Puerto Rico’s delegates will be among the last selected. It is widely assumed that one of the candidates will have won a majority of the delegates before Puerto Rico selects its delegation.

Prats, Acevedo, and Governor Calderon all termed Clark’s status proposal as undemocratic because it does not include status as unincorporated U.S. territory -- the Commonwealth’s current status — as an option for Puerto Rico’s ultimate status that is an option that resolves the status issue and that can be permanent.

The complaint is ironic because the Commonwealth’s current status itself is undemocratic: It does not permit Puerto Ricans to vote for the officials who make and execute their national laws. It is a requirement of democracy that people have voting representation in their national government. This is the reason that the Commonwealth’s current status cannot be the territory’s ultimate, permanent status and that Puerto Rico’s status issue will continue until Puerto Ricans obtain national government democracy: All people have a continuing right to a democratic government that continues until they obtain such a government.

In his policy statement, Clark pledged to work to enable Puerto Ricans to choose among the "constitutionally-viable options" for Puerto Rico’s ultimate status in a reference to the unconstitutional status proposal that the "commonwealth" party adopted under Acevedo’s leadership. He correctly identified the options for Puerto Rico’s ultimate status as "national sovereignty, either fully independent from or in free association with the United States, or to join the Union as a State."

Although Prats said that Clark’s statements were "juridically incorrect" as well as "political unwise," Clark said in reaction that Prats’ status contentions were "judicially incorrect." He also said that "The process I have identified [for resolving the status issue] is clear, fair, and objective" and restated the options that he had initially recognized.

He also noted that "commonwealth is not a status option but rather a territorial form of government" that provides "limited self-autonomy." Puerto Rico, like other U.S. territories, is authorized to exercise powers of local government.

Clark also said that "the commonwealth . . . is flawed because it does not enable or empower the Puerto Rican people to overcome the difficult socio-economic challenges they face." In his policy statement, the former general said that he would work to resolve the status issue "to rectify the injustices of the current status." He also proposed several economic measures in this regard.

The presidential candidate invited Acevedo, Prats, other "commonwealth" party leaders as well as Independence Party leaders "to propose status options that are constitutionally-viable within the context of U.S. and international law . . . so we can finally resolve [what] Puerto Rico’s ultimate status [will be]." Clark’s policy won him support from many leaders of the statehood party and the ‘free association’ minority faction of the "commonwealth" party. It also won a favorable comment from a representative of the Independence Party.

Former Governor Rossello, again the gubernatorial candidate and president of the statehood party, said that Clark’s was " the best proposal on Puerto Rico that has been made by any presidential candidate." Former Governor and Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo said that Clark "is the only Democratic candidate with a clear and specific view on how to resolve the islands’ status dilemma . . . None of the presidents or presidential candidates have very been as specific and firm" on the issue.

Romero Barcelo also praised Clark’s proposals for job-creation and social programs assistance for Puerto Rico.

Clark’s statements led to Romero chairing his campaign committee in the territory, former "commonwealth" party Senator Marco Rigau, a free association advocate, chairing an advisory committee, and Democratic National Committee Hispanic Finance Council Chair Miguel Lausell, another free association ‘commonwealther,’ joining Clark’s national campaign committee.

Kerry Developing His Puerto Rico Status Policy

The current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John Kerry (MA), is developing a policy paper on Puerto Rico for release by mid-February, his Puerto Rico coordinator said January 28th.

The Kerry plans seem to be a response to a comprehensive policy regarding Puerto Rico that retired General Clark issued.

Resident Commissioner, gubernatorial candidate, and party president Acevedo Vila has said "commonwealthers" will not support Kerry because of the Senator’s support of the extension of the federal tax credit for wages, investments and local taxes that companies based in the States make in Puerto Rico, Internal Revenue Code Section 30A. Acevedo and Calderon’s husband had raised tens of thousands of dollars for Kerry’s campaign in the hope that he would support Calderon’s alternative proposal to exempt from federal taxation 85-100% of profits that companies based in the States receive from Puerto Rico through an amendment to tax code sec. 956. Kerry declined to do so.

Kerry’s campaign has issued two contradictory statements on the Puerto Rico status issue.

  • It has posted on its Internet Website a statement that Kerry "supports self-determination for Puerto Rico and has proposed a referendum that allows the people of Puerto Rico to vote on statehood, independence or continued status as a commonwealth."
  • Kerry’s Hispanic affairs coordinator later told a forum organized by the National Puerto Rican Coalition that Kerry "is committed to work with Puerto Rico’s leaders and the Congress to enable Puerto Ricans to attain 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."

Kerry Puerto Rico coordinator Manuel Ortiz said that the forthcoming comprehensive Puerto Rico policy would reiterate the Kerry campaign’s latter commitment.

Ortiz also said that Kerry would maintain his support of tax code sec. 30A and opposition to the sec. 956 amendment. The amendment has been rejected by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, the U.S. Treasury Department, and the White House.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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