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By Dick Thornburgh

In historical and constitutional terms, the recent political status vote in Puerto Rico was a necessary but obviously not decisive step on the road of self-determination leading to full self-government. Rather than giving Congress an excuse for ignoring Puerto Rico's political status dilemma, the vote of 50.2% for "None of the Above" and 46.5% for statehood raises questions that only Congress can answer.

Legally, these results are important because the vote dispels the profound confusion created by another local plebiscite in 1993. That vote was tainted due to a ballot definition of commonwealth based on a constitutionally prohibited "have it both ways" mixture of key benefits of both statehood and independence, but the full burdens and responsibilities of neither.

The 1993 ballot definition of commonwealth as a non-territorial and constitutionally permanent union, with special rights and powers not even enjoyed by the states, has been rejected as a matter of law by the U.S. Supreme Court, Congressional Research Service and U.S. Department of Justice. Even though that bogus definition of commonwealth won less than a majority of votes in 1993, a new vote among legally valid options was imperative to restore legitimacy to the self-determination process.

In the most recent plebiscite, the current territorial commonwealth status as it exists under federal law was decisively rejected when it received only .1% of the vote. Separate nationhood in the form of either independence or associated republic status also was rejected by all but 2.8% of the vote.

The commonwealth party's support of the "None of the Above" option rather than an accurate description of the status quo only confirms its lack of a commonwealth definition acceptable to both voters and Congress within the framework of the U.S. Constitution. To align itself with strong pro-U.S. voter sentiment, the commonwealth party promised in 1993 and again in 1998 that commonwealth secures "permanent union" and "irrevocable U.S. citizenship" in perpetuity, and to attract separatist voters "national autonomy" for Puerto Rico also was promised.

Thus, rather than being an endorsement of the status quo, the vote of commonwealth supporters in 1993 and 1998 confronts Congress with the question of how permanent union and irrevocable citizenship can be achieved for Puerto Rico consistent with the U.S. Constitution. Because Congress has neglected its role in defining the path out of this dilemma, the 50.2% "None of the Above" vote can best be understood as an expression of uncertainty about the real status options Congress will consider, and for others wishful support for a "nation-within-a-nation" commonwealth super-status that does not exist under the U.S. Constitution.

The political reality emerging from the somewhat tortured self-determination process in Puerto Rico is that 46.5% of the voters believe Puerto Rico must assume equal responsibilities to get equal rights of citizenship, and that statehood is the only permanent form of union and nationality under the U.S. Constitution. Not surprisingly, 50.2% of the voters still want to know if Congress will continue the current $10 billion annual U.S. taxpayer subsidy of commonwealth, and allow the territory to become a permanent enclave of cultural, linguistic and political separatism under the American flag.

That is precisely what will happen if Congress does nothing. It would perpetuate a deplorable and unsustainable policy of using tax-free federal benefits as a disincentive for 3.8 million U.S. citizens to seek full self-government and equality through self-determination.

Since 1789 Congress has resolved the status of 33 large and populous territories in favor of separate nationhood or statehood. In each of those cases, Congress defined the choices as continued territorial status, permanent union and irrevocable citizenship through incorporation leading to statehood, or separate nationhood. Eventually it will have to do the same for Puerto Rico, by clarifying the current status and defining the options for change. Even if full equality and democracy can be delayed, the truth about Puerto Rico's real choices can not be obscured forever.

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