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A Critical Review of the
"1999 Puerto Rico Review"
by Christina D. Burnett
for the Citizens' Educational Foundation, Inc. (CEF)
January 4, 2000
The Puerto Rico Herald recently reprinted "1999
Puerto Rico Review" by the Americas Review World of Information.
Although this report contained some useful information, it unfortunately
perpetuated some rather damaging (and all-too-pervasive) misinformation
on Puerto Rico's status. Given the staggering levels of ignorance
that already exist regarding Puerto Rico's status-and given that
such ignorance is one of the greatest obstacles toward solving
our status dilemma-those of us engaged in the status debate have
a responsibility to promote a more informed dialogue on the future
of our island. To that end, we write to correct some of the mistakes
in this report.
The "1999 Puerto Rico Review"
wrongly describes the December 1998 plebiscite as "a referendum
proposing Puerto Rico's formal incorporation into the USA."
The report describes the December 1998 plebiscite as "a
referendum proposing Puerto Rico's formal incorporation into the
USA." This is factually wrong. The referendum proposed four
options plus "none of the above." The options included
statehood, territorial commonwealth, free association, and independence.
Because the ballot excluded "enhanced commonwealth,"
it was widely criticized for being biased in favor of statehood.
Maybe so, maybe not. Regardless of one's views on this particular
matter, one thing the ballot did not do was propose "incorporation."
Rather, it proposed several status options, and gave the voters
a choice among them.
If one wishes to understand the options at stake-and more importantly,
if one is a voter and hopes to make an informed choice-it is crucial
to understand the distinction between "incorporation"
and other status options. There is only one way that incorporation
happens, and that is if Congress decides to incorporate a territory.
"Incorporation" implies a Congressional intent to admit
the territory into statehood at some point. Yet nothing anywhere-no
law, no regulation, no policy, no court opinion-requires incorporation
prior to statehood. The power of Congress to admit states is not
limited to "incorporated" territories. Therefore, incorporation
could conceivably precede statehood, but it is hardly a prerequisite.
A lack of understanding of "incorporation" is easy
to exploit, as became evident in the December 1998 plebiscite.
In the days before the vote, Rafael Hernández Colón
stated that a victory for statehood would mean automatic incorporation
for Puerto Rico (and with it, federal taxes). Mr. Hernández
Colón should know better. Statehood, if it won, would not
require any particular method of admission. Congress, if it wanted,
could propose incorporation first. Congress could propose automatic
admission. Congress could propose another plebiscite. Indeed,
Congress could ignore the result altogether. (This is precisely
why it is important to have a federally sanctioned process of
self-determination, with Congress signing off on the options ahead
of time. This would put pressure on Congress to respond to the
results.) In sum, Hernández Colón's threat of "incorporation"
was simply a scare tactic. As such, it did a disservice to the
voters, by impairing their ability to make an informed decision.
The "1999 Puerto Rico Review"
perpetuates misleading and partisan rhetoric by stating that statehood
was "rejected," without pointing out that free association,
independence, and territorial commonwealth were also rejected,
and by far greater margins.
Like much of the American media, this report sums up the result
of the December 1998 plebiscite as a "rejection" of
statehood. But why the focus on statehood? Here are the results:
50.30% for none of the above, 46.49% for statehood, 2.54% for
independence, 0.29% for free association, and 0.06% for territorial
commonwealth. How is this a defeat for statehood alone? In fact,
the winning result speaks for itself: "none of the above."
None of the options won. All were defeated.
It is true that an honest assessment requires an acknowledgement
that the ballot language was controversial. The Popular Democratic
Party (PDP) objected to the definition of "commonwealth"
on the ballot, and boycotted that option. Yet even if its opposition
was justified, there still remain two options that suffered a
resounding defeat: independence and free association. No one objected
to the definitions of these options, yet they received nearly
negligible percentages of the vote. The emphasis on the defeat
of statehood is a misleading and partisan emphasis, and it does
nothing to promote an educated debate on status.
The "1999 Puerto Rico Review"
is wrong again when it states that in 1993, "Puerto Ricans
voted to retain their status as a Commonwealth within the USA"
and that in 1998, they voted "in favour of maintaining Commonwealth
A piece of misinformation that has spread like a disease is
the claim that Puerto Ricans have voted to retain Commonwealth
status. This is, simply, untrue. What a majority of Puerto Rican
voters have chosen in past plebiscites is "enhanced Commonwealth."
The 48% vote in 1993 was a vote for "enhanced Commonwealth."
The 50.3% vote in 1998 for "none of the above" has been
the subject of many creative interpretations (including the interpretation
that it was a victory for statehood, which is also a stretch),
but it has not changed the PDP's position that Commonwealth status
must be enhanced.
What is important to understand is that "enhanced Commonwealth"
looks nothing at all like the current Commonwealth status. According
to the PDP's Proposal for the Development of Commonwealth Status,
a document adopted by the PDP Governing Board, enhanced Commonwealth
would involve Puerto Rico's delegating power to the United States;
on the other hand, today, with Puerto Rico being a territory (that
is, a colony), it's the reverse: the federal government delegates
powers to Puerto Rico. According to the PDP Proposal, with
enhanced Commonwealth Puerto Rico would have numerous powers it
does not enjoy today, such as the power to negotiate its own treaties,
and powers it will never have, such as the power to veto federal
laws. In sum, the enhanced Commonwealth that Puerto Ricans have
asked for is not the current Commonwealth.
To say that Puerto Ricans have chosen the current Commonwealth
status does great damage to Puerto Rico, because it creates the
impression that the U.S. is not at fault for Puerto Rico's colonial
condition (as it suggests that Puerto Ricans have accepted it),
and therefore, that Congress does not need do anything to address
status. Both of these impressions are, of course, wrong.
Among those that follow Puerto Rico's status debate, it is
well known that all of the political parties in Puerto Rico seek
fundamental changes to the current status, a status which is obviously
colonial and undeniably unsatisfactory. Just like the pro-statehood
NPP and the pro-independence PIP, the PDP seeks a status very
different from what Puerto Rico has today.
No one, not even the PDP, advocates the current status. To
spread the mistaken claim that Puerto Ricans support their current
colonial status, as the "1999 Puerto Rico Review" does,
is to reduce the chances of a prompt resolution to the status
problem. After all, the myth that Puerto Ricans want their colonial
status is precisely the excuse Congress needs in order to get
away with ignoring the problem of Puerto Rico's colonial status,
as it has for 101 years.