Status Goes National

by John Marino

September 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Local Democrats and Republicans will squabble over whose Puerto Rican political status platform plank means more, but the truth is both major U.S. political parties say much about the need to find a final status solution for Puerto Rico.

The question is whether the federal government will follow through with any meaningful action on the issue, and if not, why.

In the run-up to their convention this week, Republicans fine-tuned their Puerto Rico plank by adding a single word "non-territorial" to the language in its 2000 platform, which local leaders said made it a whole lot better.

Democrats, similarly, strengthened their language on Puerto Rico's political status last month before their national convention.

The Republican plank now says: "We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully soveriegn state after they freely so determine.

"We recognize that Congress has the final authority to define the constitutionally valid options of Puerto Rico to achieve a permanent, non-territorial status with a government by consent and full enfranchisement. As long as Puerto Rico is not a state, however, the will of its people regarding their political status should be ascertained by means of a general right of referendum or specific referenda sponsored by the United States government."

Democrats meanwhile, after a pitched battle between local pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth Democrats, came up with this plank: "We recognize that the four million disenfranchised American citizens who reside in Puerto Rico have the right to the permanent and fully democratic status of their choice. The White House and Congress will clarify the realistic options and enable Puerto Ricans to choose among them."

For local GOP leaders, adding the word "non-territorial" to the plank's definition of a viable status option for the island ups the ante against commonwealth as a real status option. GOP National Committeeman Luis Fortuño says the Republican change was important because now the commonwealth does not meet any three of the party's criteria for status: "a consitutionally valid option, full enfranchisement and non-territorial." Statehood supporters also point out that the "S" word is specifically mentioned in the Republican platform, as opposed to that of their Democratic rivals.

Democrats, meanwhile, point to the pro-active stance of their platform plank on Puerto Rico. By pledging action in clarifying the viable options for Puerto Ricans and enabling a choice among them, the party is saying that Washington will initiate action on resolving Puerto Ricans' status. That point actually angered Democratic commonwealth supporters, such as attorney José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral, who said that San Juan, and not Washington, should make the first move on status, a stance taken by the current Popular Democratic Party administration. While island Republicans are invariably statehooders, island Democrats are pretty well divided on those who support statehood and those who support commonwealth. That has led to some mixed messages on status within the Democratic Party.

Ironically, however, many observers believe that increasingly it's the national Democrats who are more open to the proposal of making Puerto Rico a state, versus the Republicans, many of whom still fear the island would largely vote Democratic if admitted to the union. Fortuño, however, believes if he is successful in his run for resident commissioner, he can change that perception.

The platform politics of the Puerto Rico status issue comes as successive White House administrations are looking at the issue through the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status. Initiated by former President Bill Clinton and continued by President Bush, the task force is seeking to come up with a process to resolve the status issue by looking at the viable options. While critics say the task force is little more than a bone thrown to Puerto Rico, rather than a genuine effort to resolve the island's status, proponents note its work goes on.

Under the Clinton administration, the Justice Department took a dim view of the commonwealth status as promulgated by the PDP, namely that it is a "bilateral pact" between the United States and Puerto Rico that can only be changed by mutual consent. The Justice Department said such an arrangement was unconstitutional and argued that Puerto Rico was a territory under the will of Congress. Bush Task Force members, meanwhile, appear leaning towards a choice for Puerto Ricans between "sovereignty" for the island, either as an independent republic or some form of free association, or permanent union as a U.S. state. Island mayors, who carried out meetings with Task Force members last month, say the choices Puerto Ricans will face will be between independence, statehood or continued colonial status.

The attention being given to the issue by national parties is good for Puerto Rico and for the United States, where the feeling is slowly sinking in that maybe it is not such a good idea to hang on indefinitely to territories seized years ago as war booty. Many critics, however, insist that the national parties are paying little more than lip service to Puerto Rico politicians in the quest for Latino votes and that real action on status remains as distant as ever.

Critics, especially independence supporters, say that neither Republicans nor Democrats will seriously consider making Puerto Rico a state, concerned that incorporating the island would create a situation like Quebec or Belfast, a political problem that could last longer than the commonwealth has. Proponents of statehood, however, point to the increasing Latino presence in the United States, with Hispanics actually a majority in several major U.S. cities today, for arguing that the attitudes against statehood for Puerto Rico are changing. The PDP downplays the mainland’s importance, insisting the status process should start in San Juan, not Washington, through the convocation of a constituent assembly on the matter. That point is perhaps the only one that the PDP and the Puerto Rican Independence Party can agree on today.

If there are still fears among Democrats and Republicans about allowing Puerto Rico statehood, the island won't get a statehood or independence choice. More likely, it will be several more years of the status quo, continued commonwealth. That’s why the criticism of what the Republicans and Democrats have offered on the subject should not hide the fact that it is a positive development. And why all three local political parties, including the PDP, which wants an improved commonwealth, should go on addressing the matter in the best way they see fit.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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