On February 20th, the presumptive Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency in the 2004 election, Senator John Kerry, wrote to Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, assuring him that, if elected President, he would preserve the "commonwealth" status option in any up-coming Puerto Rico plebiscite. The Resident Commissioner and Popular Democratic Party (PDP) candidate for Governor in 2004 waited until last week to make public excerpts of the letters text. A verbatim copy of the letter, with emphasis added, follows.
Dear Representative Acevedo-Vilá
Thank you for contacting me regarding self-determination for Puerto Rico. I agree that it is important that the residents of Puerto Rico have the right to express democratically their preferences regarding the political status of their territory.
As you know, I have consistently advocated democratic means through which residents of Puerto Rico are able to voice their opinion, including cosponsoring legislation to provide for referenda. I agree that the chosen mechanism should allow Puerto Ricans the options of electing statehood, independence or continued status as a commonwealth. The people of Puerto Rico have voted in favor of commonwealth status since 1952. It would be unfair to take away this option now.
I thank you again for your kind letter and I wish you all the best.
John F. Kerry
At first glance, the letter simply repeats the message that has been on candidate Kerrys website since the beginning of his run for the Democratic nomination, "John 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." At closer look, however, there is nuance with important ramifications. For the first time in any written campaign statement, the Senator refers to Puerto Rico as a "territory."
Assuming that his use of the "T" word is intentional, Kerry may be sending a coded message to the large and growing number of self-determination advocates who have been calling for non-territorial and non-colonial status options in any future plebiscite. By using the word "territory," he could be implying that, as President, he would allow a ballot option that, in so many words, made clear that "a vote for commonwealth is a choice to keep Puerto Rico in a territorial status."
Senator Kerrys reference to Puerto Rico as a territory must have been upsetting to Mr. Acevedo Vilá and perhaps the reason he has not released the letters full text -- since neither he nor his Popular Democratic Party (PDP) accepts that fact. The Resident Commissioner consistently represents Puerto Ricos commonwealth as a "permanent status," implying that the island already enjoys internationally recognized sovereignty. He has stated (as far back as 1997 in the Young Bill debate) that the 1952 Congressional act authorizing local self-government in Puerto Rico established an "unalterable bilateral pact," between the island and the United States, one that forever ended the "territorial relationship" existing before that legislation.
Mr. Acevedo Vilá envisions an "enhanced commonwealth," one in which Puerto Rico could without becoming an independent country -- decide what U.S. laws were "applicable" to it and negotiate treaties with sovereign states. This is a concept that no U.S. Congress, Court or Administration has ever accepted. Support for the enhanced commonwealth has been roundly rejected in both Houses of Congress and both sides of the aisles. More importantly in this case, Senator Kerry has rejected this possibility in his various votes on laws and resolutions in his capacity as Senator from Massachusetts. He has always voted to offer Puerto Rico voters constitutionally valid status options. There has been no "flip-flopping" on that issue.
Exhaustive legal research, House and Senate findings, the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Courts and various executive task forces have concluded that the only manner by which Puerto Rico can gain sovereignty is through Statehood or Independence. Conceivably, the present Commonwealth (not Mr. Acevedo Vilás "enhanced commonwealth") could go on indefinitely, were it not for the fact that virtually no one in Puerto Rico is satisfied with it. The "status quo" Commonwealth withholds from the American citizens of Puerto Rico fundamental rights under the federal system and no opportunity to create them as an independent country.
The Kerry-Acevedo Vilá letter created a stir of protest on the island after it became public early this month. Among the published voices of disappointment are those of Manuel Rodríguez Orellana, Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) representative on the U.S. Mainland, and Herbert W. Brown III, president of the Citizens' Educational Foundation-US, a Washington, DC organization promoting Puerto Rico's Self-Determination.
In the San Juan Star, Mr. Rodríguez, a fellow student of Sen. Kerrys at the Boston College Law School in the 1970s, reminded his classmate of his principled opposition to the Vietnam War, and asked him to adopt an equal abhorrence of Puerto Ricos "colonial status." Mr. Brown, in an April 4th article in the Miami Herald, called for a process of self-determination, "where Puerto Ricans can choose among constitutionally viable non-territorial options and settle their status once and for all."
In the early stages of the campaign, Kerrys staff put out conflicting statements on the candidates position on Puerto Rico. Manuel Ortiz, one of Kerry's political advisors, told reporters that the Senator would issue a comprehensive policy position on Puerto Rico. Luis Navarro, a spokesperson for Hispanic Affairs in the Kerry Campaign, added that the candidate supported a self-determination process for the island that would lead to a result that was "neither colonial nor territorial." Contacted by this reporter, Mr. Brown said that he disagreed with Senator Kerrys assertion that the vote for commonwealth has been favorable since 1952. "In the 1998 referendum, the current commonwealth status received less than one thousand votes of over one million which were cast."
Repeated earlier attempts by the Herald to obtain a clarification of the Senators views on Puerto Rico self-determination were met with silence by his campaign aides.
The Kerry-Acevedo Vilá correspondence is the first utterance from the Democratic candidate in recent weeks and, like his webpage statement, he has managed to make no side of the status argument happy about his position on self-determination. In this he mimics the position of his rival, President George W. Bush, who has shunted the issue off to bureaucrats to "study," and report back after the 2004 election.
For three years now, Mr. Acevedo Vilá has been close enough to the mood of mainland legislators to know that the cards are stacked against any congressionally authorized plebiscite for Puerto Rico offering anything other than Statehood, Independence and Independence with Free Association as status options. He is also aware that efforts to arrive at "enhanced commonwealth" on tiptoes and in tiny steps will fail in the current political climate. With this in mind, the PDP strategy has been to block or delay the initiation of any process of self-determination that is defined by Washington and to buy time for the day that there is a different mood in the nations capital.
At the same time, to remain a force in Puerto Rico politics, the PDP must convince islanders that "sovereignty within commonwealth" is accepted by mainland politicians and will eventually be codified into law. By delaying the publication of the letter and "laundering" the reference to "territory" from its text, it is clear that Mr. Acevedo Vilá intends to spin Senator Kerrys intentions into an acceptance of the PDP version of the status quo, territorial commonwealth. That process could be nipped in the bud if Senator John Kerry would clarify his position on the matter.
This week Herald readers are asked to state if they think that Senator Kerry should clarify his position on "territorial commonwealth."