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The Miami Herald
Congress Must Lift the Island from Limbo
Puerto Ricans have gained from special ties with the United States, but the nature of those ties is preventing the growth of full democracy.
by RAFAEL HERNANDEZ COLON
July 25, 2004
It is a great irony that the United States wages a war half a world away to bring democracy to Iraq and yet, for over 40 years, Congress has failed to come up with a fully democratic solution for the island of Puerto Rico, a land much more intimately bound to America through history, population and geographic proximity than the Middle Eastern nation.
The commonwealth relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States was established 52 years ago today.
At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded its Caribbean colony to the United States, and over the succeeding decades Congress passed legislation to broaden the territory's participation in the process of government.
In 1950, Congress enacted Public Law 600, by which the people of Puerto Rico entered into a ''compact of association'' with the United States of America and were tasked with drafting their constitution. At that time, the ''compact of association,'' or commonwealth, was the only choice offered to the people of Puerto Rico.
The constitutional convention that convened on the island on Sept. 17, 1951, was not empowered to opt for statehood or independence. In March 1952, Puerto Ricans ratified the constitution and submitted it for congressional approval. Eventually, the commonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado, in Spanish) was proclaimed on July 25, 1952.
Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship March 2, 1917, under the Jones Act, which also provided a bill of rights and established a locally elected House and Senate.
This granting of citizenship was envisaged as a further tightening of the bonds between Puerto Ricans and America, with the idea that this relationship would evolve to become one similar to that between Australia or Canada and Great Britain.
There is no question that the commonwealth status has brought great benefits to Puerto Rico. Under the commonwealth's founding document, the government of Puerto Rico enjoys the same sovereignty as does a state of the union.
The island is not burdened with federal taxation, and the arrangement has allowed us sufficient autonomy to pursue an economic development program through which we emerged from underdevelopment, jumping from being one of the poorest countries in Latin America in the 1940s to enjoying a mature economy with an annual GDP of $75 billion -- which places us third in Latin America behind Brazil and Mexico.
As U.S. citizens, with all the rights and privileges this status accords, we have been able to travel freely to any state of the Union. Over the decades, a circular pattern of migration to and from Puerto Rico and the mainland has developed, resulting in about three million out of seven million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland at any given point in time.
This pattern is such that the proportions of those on the mainland and those on the island have remained relatively the same throughout the years.
But in addition to this positive legacy, the commonwealth arrangement also presents some formidable obstacles to the establishment of a full democracy.
The powers of the federal government of the United States (legislative, executive and judiciary) extend to Puerto Rico -- but we are unable to participate in them through the democratic process.
What We Lack
In Puerto Rico, we do not vote for federally elected officials. Puerto Ricans don't have voting representation in Congress, nor do we participate in the election of the president or vice president of the United States.
And if at the time of the American Revolution taxation without representation was deemed tyranny, what shall we call imposing legislation such as the death penalty in Puerto Rico without any kind of consent for that legislation on the part of the island?
Over half a century after the establishment of the Estado Libre Asociado, Puerto Ricans are still torn about a solution to this problem.
A significant group favors ''perfected commonwealth'' as the best option. This would provide broader autonomy than what we have now; for instance, it would empower the commonwealth government to act on such matters as the variables that determine the growth of our economy: minimum wages, shipping costs, tariffs, etc. It would also provide some creative mechanisms for the people on the island to voice consent or opposition to federal legislation.
Another large group favors ''statehood,'' which would turn Puerto Rico into one more full-fledged state of the Union and allow its citizens to vote for president, vice president, senators and members of congress.
A very small minority, about 5 percent of the population, favors independence.
Congress, which has the power to decide this matter, has consistently failed to respond to the petitions of the people of Puerto Rico to arrive at a solution. Congress failed to act when those favoring a perfected commonwealth option numbered more than 60 percent of the population. Support for that option has now eroded to about 48 percent of the population, while at present the statehood supporters enjoy similar backing.
Harming Puerto Rico
This state of affairs has had a negative impact on Puerto Rico's collective purpose, on which our sustained progress depends. Since the commonwealth and statehood parties frequently alternate in governing the island, each party will try to adjust its governing programs to match its ideological position, and the result is a perpetual back-and-forth shift of policies regarding economic development, education, language, health and other areas of government action.
It is past time that Congress assume its responsibility and address this situation. The solution is a simple bill enabling the people of Puerto Rico to convene a constitutional convention in order to exercise our right to self-determination. That convention would propose whatever solution the people wish.
For instance, the bill could provide for a ''fast track'' -- a yes or no -- from Congress.
Or it could provide for a ''conditional response'' -- that is, if Congress is willing to agree to a proposal subject to certain amendments. This response would open up negotiations between the convention and Congress that would have few time limits -- unlike a ''fast-track'' solution.
The convention would continue to sit until an agreement was reached with Congress as to an alternative that would give Puerto Rico a true democracy.
Rafael Hernández Colón was governor of Puerto Rico from 1972 to 1976 and from 1984 to 1992.