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Family Feud


December 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The aftermath of the 2004 elections is shaping up as a crucial, defining moment in Puerto Rico’s history.

There is a lot more at stake in the ongoing process of the ballot recount and federal judicial review than just who will be governor of Puerto Rico for the next four years.

The three or four ideological blocs that have traditionally defined the island’s political landscape are quickly merging into two.

Everything that has happened in this quirky election year–the campaign, the election, and more importantly, the election’s aftermath–point to a drastic polarization of political forces along the lines of two big opposing blocs: those who are and feel American beyond the legal fact of the citizenship they hold and those who don’t feel American in spite of their full enjoyment of the benefits that come with that citizenship.

It is the old family feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, criollo style.

To be sure, there are still three major formally constituted political parties: the New Progressive Party (NPP), the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). And, in terms of status politics, there are four major options people identify with: statehood, the present arrangement called commonwealth, some sort of free association, and independence.

But in practice, followers of the last three ideological strands–commonwealth, free association, and independence–have finally merged completely into one single coalition in opposition to statehood supporters.

The bitter debate over the results of the Nov. 2 elections–and specifically over the U.S. federal court’s involvement and possibly decisive role in the controversy–is the best example of this family feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The core of the controversy is not so much whether the so-called pivazos are valid, but whether we see Puerto Rico as part of the U.S.

Pivazos are the contested thrice-marked ballots at the core of the ongoing controversy over who won the governorship in which one cross appears underneath the PIP party symbol and another two appear next to PDP gubernatorial and resident commissioner candidates Anibal Acevedo Vila and Roberto Prats, respectively.

Everyone, including the otherwise reserved and prudent Puerto Rico Supreme Court judges, have openly declared their ideological affiliations in this matter.

In a procedurally questionable decision, the highest local court handed down a strictly along-party-lines 4-3 ruling on the validity of the votes in question with the express intention of undermining the federal court’s jurisdiction over the case.

Not only PIP and PDP officials, but also many commentators and important sectors of the press have lashed out at the U.S. District Court and the specific judge randomly selected to hear the controversy, Daniel Dominguez, for "meddling" in Puerto Rican politics.

They have accused the federal judges on the island–all of them Puerto Rican, by the way–of wanting to "reverse the will of the Puerto Rican people." In an unprecedented low blow, they have called into question Dominguez’s impartiality a priori with gossip and innuendo. Some newspapers have given ample space to such stories.

In sum, they speak as if the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico were a court from another country, say France or Spain, and of Dominguez as if he were a dishonest Rossello crony and statehood fanatic.

These harsh critics have included would-be governor Anibal Acevedo Vila himself who, notwithstanding the obvious personal political interest he has at stake in the controversy, has demonstrated poor statesmanship and crass violation of the allegiance, deference, and respect he owes the federal judiciary not merely as a U.S. citizen, but as a member of the U.S. Congress which he still is.

Some of the demonstrations against the federal court’s involvement in the case have been prominently sparked and agitated by avowed pro-independence groups of various strands, with pro-commonwealth sympathizers happily joining in.

Watching at the sidelines, one imagines, are pro-American populares, still debating whether they belong to the Hatfields or the McCoys. Just as they watched as the pro-independence forces drove the Vieques cause to the up-to-that point unimaginable ouster of the U.S. Navy from Puerto Rico, they may be in for a surprise if they silently go along with independentistas and pro-independence populares’ attack on the federal court.

This is neither the time nor the place for a dissertation on the presence of the federal court in Puerto Rico. But it is important to remember it has been part and parcel of American sovereignty over the island since 1898. That fact alone is understandably unsavory for an independentista. But the presence and scope of action of the federal judiciary in Puerto Rico–which is virtually identical to that exercised by the federal courts in the 50 states–is part of our reality as a U.S. territory and part of our political arrangement under the commonwealth constitution.

Some in Puerto Rico may resent it, but the federal court here doesn’t have a choice when it comes to hearing a case in which U.S. citizens with legal standing come before it to redress their constitutional rights as U.S. citizens or to prosecute violations of federal laws.

The present controversy may involve the state electoral process, but state matters are also involved when U.S. citizens looking for redress before the federal court in Puerto Rico are inmates complaining of local prison overcrowding; local community leaders claim violation of federal environmental laws on the island; or the U.S. district attorney on the island seeks to prosecute a carjacker, a drug dealer, or a corrupt government official.

All these are instances in which the federal court has served as an unbiased arbiter to resolve local controversies that couldn’t or wouldn’t be solved at the state level or to provide redress to local citizens whose rights were trampled on by state authorities or others.

In the U.S. federal system, the federal court exists precisely to protect all citizens from possible violations of their constitutional rights at the state level. That is a function the federal judiciary carries on year after year in the States as well as here to protect citizens against local biases even on the part of the states’ highest courts. In a place as harshly divided as Puerto Rico, that is a blessing, not an imposition.

The role of the federal court in deciding the present electoral controversy is no different from the role it has played in deciding other controversies arising from state electoral processes in which the civil rights of U.S. citizens or other questions of federal law have been involved. Florida, Washington, North Carolina, and Montana are only a few examples.

As of this writing, the outcome remains uncertain. But in the midst of all the uncertainty, pessimism, recriminations, and insults that the Hatfields are throwing at the McCoys and vice versa, it is important to remember that the ongoing process to decide who won the elections is infinitely better than the alternative–so familiar in neighboring republics–of having tanks rolling down the street.

And that, make no mistake about it, we have the federal court to thank for.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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