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Beware Lame Ducks Bearing Gifts

by Lance Oliver

February 11, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Facing the prospect of being remembered as the only elected president ever impeached, Bill Clinton looks around the White House these days and wistfully observes that he's "going to miss this place."

Since his best hope for a positive mention in the history books is presiding over the longest economic expansion in U.S. history (and historians are likely to be sparing in giving him credit for that), Clinton is searching for a legacy anywhere he can find one. Even Puerto Rico is worth a try.

That's one explanation, anyway, for Clinton's inclusion of $2.5 million in his proposed federal budget for the purpose of another consultation of the Puerto Rican electorate on the island's status. If he can't end racial tension (remember when that was to be his "legacy?") maybe he can resolve the equally difficult problem of Puerto Rico's status question.

That's not the only explanation, of course. The Popular Democratic Party is convinced that Clinton's offer of a federally approved status consultation, be it a referendum or a constitutional convention or whatever, is simply Gov. Pedro Rosselló's payoff for agreeing to a compromise on the Vieques issue. That explanation will probably carry the most weight with the public in Puerto Rico, which generally views politics as an unrelenting succession of shady backroom deals (and not always without reason).

The New Progressive Party and the White House deny such a deal, and for the record, the Puerto Rican Independence Party officially doubts it. Notice how perceptions are determined by what each party wants: The PDP sees a nefarious quid-pro-quo because it wants status left basically as it is, despite their own talk of "refining" it, while the NPP and PIP see Clinton's initiative as honest and independent of the Vieques deal because it's what they want.

The White House had more to say, of course. Jeffrey Farrow, the White House point man on Puerto Rico, said it was possible the voters could weigh in on status in November, the same time they vote in the general election. Farrow is highly skilled and knowledgeable in the arts of language, and he knows that the word "could" makes the prediction of even the most unlikely occurrence legally and logically defensible.

Something "could" happen even if the odds were a million to one against it. The odds against a federally approved status vote this year in Puerto Rico are probably not that long, but they might just as well be.


In the status question, Clinton is mostly irrelevant. The White House, in general, is the third most important battlefield. The most important player in any process that will move the status issue ahead is the U.S. Congress.

No vote, constitutional convention or any other mechanism to deal with the issue will have any importance if it is not approved in advance by the U.S. Congress. Thanks to Rosselló, we had two meaningless "criollo" plebiscites in the 1990s to prove it.

The second most important player is the Puerto Rican electorate. The president only matters in the sense that he may or may not veto any of the bills regarding status that are passed by Congress.

So why is a status consultation so unlikely this year? Let me count the ways:

  • Congress does not want to deal with the Puerto Rico issue. For all but a handful of the 500-plus members of Congress, Puerto Rico is an issue that can gain them nothing.
  • It's an election year, so multiply the above reason by two. Any consultation is inevitably simplified in the U.S. press as statehood for Puerto Rico, yes or no. It's a vote-losing proposition for members of Congress even to talk about it.
  • Republicans are in the majority and relish the fact that Clinton has one foot out the door. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott rendered his opinion of Clinton's budget before it arrived: little time would be wasted reading it. They will spend even less time approving its initiatives.
  • Republicans are in the majority and they hate dealing with Puerto Rico's status even more than the Congress in general. It only causes internal party divisions and riles up the right-wing rabble back home who think of Puerto Ricans as welfare-guzzling, Spanish-speaking foreigners whether they're technically U.S. citizens or not.

Both Clinton and Rosselló, whose eight-year terms coincided, will have to seek legacies elsewhere. This will not be the breakthrough year in resolving Puerto Rico's political status.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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