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Are We A Democracy?


July 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

If you were to say we in Puerto Rico aren’t living in a democracy, most people not only would be astounded but also would think you were taking them for ignorant fools. I have been witness to lawyers arguing that Puerto Rico has complete control of its internal affairs. How ignorant can you be?

But before we proceed any further, we should first define the word democracy. Whether from a legal or political point of view, a democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power (sovereignty) is vested in the people, and it is exercised by them, directly or indirectly, through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).

Obviously, the supreme power, or sovereignty, in Puerto Rico isn’t vested in us–the people of Puerto Rico. The supreme power, or sovereignty, over Puerto Rico lies in the U.S. Congress.

The democratic form of government in the U.S. is a republican form of government, where a balance of power exists between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The executive authority is exercised by the president, who is elected by the U.S. citizens residing in the 50 states of the union. We in Puerto Rico can’t vote for the president. Therefore, his authority isn’t derived from our vote, but from the vote of all citizens residing in the 50 states of the union.

The voting members of Congress, both in the House and in the Senate, are also elected by the U.S. citizens residing in the 50 states of the union. We in Puerto Rico have no voting representation in Congress. Therefore, the U.S. Congress exercises its power and authority over Puerto Rico not because we delegated that power to it, but because the U.S. citizens residing in the 50 states conferred that power and authority by voting for the members of Congress. We don’t vote for any of them.

The judicial branch is presided over by the Supreme Court of the U.S. All judges in the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, and the U.S. District Courts are appointed by the president, for whom we don’t vote, and they are confirmed by the Senate, where we have no representation.

Therefore, all of the power and authority exercised by the president, the U.S. Congress, and the federal court system is derived from the sovereignty of the U.S. citizens residing in the states of the union, not from the U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico, who don’t vote.

How can anyone allege that we partake in any way, shape, or form in delegating the people of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty to the president, the U.S. Congress, and the judiciary of the U.S.?

Not only do we not delegate any authority to them through our vote, since we don’t have one, but we are subject to their authority without having voted for them or participated in their appointment.

The president exercises the executive power through secretaries appointed to his constitutional cabinet and through other executives appointed to head agencies and other public corporations. All of the cabinet members, and many of the other presidential appointees, are confirmed by the U.S. Senate. We in Puerto Rico don’t vote for the president, nor do we have any representation in the Senate. Therefore, all authority over us is exercised without our consent.

Congress passes laws that obligate us in Puerto Rico, and we are penalized, and in some cases even imprisoned, for not obeying those laws. This authority and power is exercised through a judicial system that doesn’t derive its authority from our vote.

When you think about what I have set forth in the foregoing paragraphs, you might say, "Yes, I know that." But somehow, people who know all that still maintain the "commonwealth" of Puerto Rico has full control over the lives and behavior of its people.

The inexorable truth, however, is that we control only that which isn’t under the control of the federal government. Even our local constitution is subject to federal laws. In other words, in case of a conflict between federal law and our local constitution, federal law will prevail.

If you still have any doubt that we don’t enjoy the basic rights and sovereignty of citizens living in a democracy, let us take a look at specific examples:

Do we have legal control over our labor relations, working conditions, salaries, and the regulation of collective bargaining agreements in Puerto Rico? Of course not.

There are many federal labor laws that apply in Puerto Rico, including federal minimum-wage laws; fair labor standards laws; and federal laws regulating the right to organize, negotiate, call a strike, and bargain collectively. There are federal laws regulating employer and employee relations as well as safety standards for workers. All these federal laws are enacted by people whom we haven’t elected, and regulations are enacted and enforced by people who have been nominated or appointed by government officials whom we didn’t elect or whose appointment we didn’t confirm.

Obviously, Puerto Rico isn’t sovereign or autonomous in the enactment and enforcement of all its labor laws.

All Puerto Ricans residing here are also subject to federal income taxes, import duties, Social Security and Medicare taxes, and federal unemployment taxes. In other words, we are subject to taxation without representation, which was one of the basic arguments made in support of the American Revolution.

We are also subject to federal communications laws, federal transportation laws, federal commerce laws, fair trade laws, health and safety laws, laws pertaining to education, and environmental laws.

How can anyone keep a straight face and still claim the U.S. Congress and the federal executive and judiciary branches don’t exercise substantial control and authority over our lives without our consent?

We are subject to federal laws regulating human behavior, laws which when violated carry with them criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Not only are these laws passed without our participation, but those that enforce them–the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice, federal district attorneys, and U.S. judges–are all appointed by either the president or someone under him, and many are subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate, where we have no representation.

If we don’t share in the exercise of the sovereign power of the nation of which we are citizens, why do we insist on calling our status anything other than a colony or a territory. The most shameful aspect of being a colony or territory is that in 1952, our people gave their consent to the colonial or territorial relationship by voting for a so-called commonwealth. Before 1952, we were governed without our consent as a result of the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Paris. In 1952, we gave our consent to the colonial or territorial relationship.

In the past two plebiscites, the territorial status, which we call commonwealth, failed to obtain a majority. Therefore, we are now being ruled by the U.S. Congress in a relationship that doesn’t have the consent of the governed. The majority of the people of Puerto Rico now reject the territorial status, which is misleadingly called commonwealth.

If you believe in democracy, how can you support any relationship that denies us, as citizens, the right to vote and the right to participate in the decisions of the nation of our citizenship that affect our daily lives? Only by becoming an independent republic or a state of the union can all of us Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico fully participate in the democratic process.

We can’t ask the people of Puerto Rico to vote for any form of relationship where we are denied our basic democratic right to vote and to be represented by those we elect. If we truly believe in democracy and believe that all citizens should participate, we must reject commonwealth as we know it as undemocratic and unacceptable.

If our nation spends billions of dollars on a war to depose the government of Iraq in order to establish a democracy in a nation thousands of miles away, how can four million U.S. citizens be deprived of their right to vote and to be represented by those they elect?

Carlos Romero Barcelo is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-76). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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