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Washington Bureau

New Commonwealth Definition Rapped

D.C. Officials Call Commonwealth Version Similar To PDP's Old Views

by Robert Friedman

October 25, 1998
©Copyright The San Juan Star

WASHINGTON - The Popular Democratic Party's "new commonwealth" definition sounds a lot like failed attempts to get the party's old commonwealth views accepted by Congress, according to several officials here close to island status issue.

"It's a warmed-over version of the 1993 plebiscite definition that was already rejected by Congress," said Manase Mansur, the senior adviser to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, on insular affairs. Young heads the House Resources Committee, which deals with Puerto Rico status.

"It seems as though the commonwealthers are at it again, wanting the best of both worlds. It sounds like attempts at enhanced commonwealth all over again," said Matt Braunstein, who is the point person for Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I, on Puerto Rico status. Kennedy, a member of the Young committee, is like the committee chairman, a supporter of statehood for the island.

John Lawrence, senior minority staff director for the House Resources Committee, said while has not viewed the complete PDP document on the new commonwealth, the summary supplied him "appears to reflect some of the features of the definition specifically rejected by Congress. I can't imagine that this definition would be acceptable," said Lawrence, whose boss, Resources Committee Minority Leader George Miller, D-Calif., has not expressed a Puerto Rico status preference.

At the same time, a Clinton administration official said the new definition is "not an option. The word option means a choice that is realistic, what can come to pass. This is not a viable option."

The new commonwealth, as the PDP calls its latest effort to lay out for voters what commonwealth actually means, did get one qualified show of support from the office of Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. Enrique Fernandez, the stateside Puerto Rican congressman's closet aide and adviser, said is believes the latest definition is more in the nature of a "proposal for the growth of commonwealth."

Gutierrez, who supports eventual independence for the island, believes Congress not only could respond, but that it has the "moral obligation" to respond best it can to the aspiration of the Puerto Rican people, Fernandez said. "If the majority supports the new commonwealth, Congress should have the political will to fashion ways to adjust to the US-Puerto Rico relationship," according to Gutierrez via Fernandez.

The PDP is urging its supporters to cast a "none of the above" (the nothing) vote in the Dec. 13 plebiscite ballot. By doing that, the party says, the voters will really be voting for the new commonwealth, which defines the option in much more autonomous terms than the plebiscite ballot's commonwealth description, based on the US House-approved bill.

That bill, and the general consensus in Congress, is that Puerto Rico remains a territory under the powers of Congress. But the PDP defines the new commonwealth as an "autonomous political body which is not colonial or territorial, in permanent union with the United States under a covenant that cannot be invalidated or annulled unilaterally...

The definition provides for "the irrevocability of US citizenship," as well as for Puerto Rico's right to enter into trade or tax agreements with others countries. It also appears to gives the commonwealth the last word on whether federal legislation applies to the island.

The Clinton administration official, who requested anonymity, said some elements in the definition "are not in themselves objectionable and are possible." But, the official added, "they are combined in an unacceptable and contradictory way."

For instance, the official said, "you cannot has irrevocable US citizenship and the functions of a national government like treaty-making powers. There is nothing wrong with Puerto Rico having treaty-making powers, but that requires Puerto Rico to be a sovereign nation, which does not permit irrevocable US citizenship."

Lawrence questioned the PDP position that voting for "none of the above" will be a ballot for the new commonwealth.

"Congressman Miller believes Congress should take action on a clear message from Puerto Rico. It will be very difficult to tell Congress that you can infer something from what is not on a ballot," he said.

A senior federal official, who has been close to the island status issue for many years, said that an accurate commonwealth definition has been a long-standing problem for the PDP, "so they keep trying to redefine it." The official, "would like people to believe that commonwealth is stable and not subject to change, while Congress and the Constitution dispute that. It's a political problem."

Click here to see new PDP definition of Commonwealth.

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