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Gridlock On Status?


January 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The results of our last general elections, at which we elected a governor from the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), a New Progressive Party (NPP) majority in both houses of the Legislature, plus an NPP resident commissioner, point, at first, to a four-year gridlock on the status question. The mechanisms to resolve the problem proposed by both parties are at odds with each other and if they insist on their respective positions there will be no movement on this matter until the electorate unlocks the gridlock in 2008.

The PDP favors a locally created statutory constitutional convention, which would negotiate with the U.S. Congress the resolution of the status question. The NPP favors a referendum whereby the people of Puerto Rico would demand from Congress a plebiscite with status alternatives defined by Congress so as to exclude the commonwealth from the ballot box. If the governor proposes the PDP’s statutory convention, the NPP Legislature won’t act upon it. If the NPP Legislature passes the NPP referendum excluding commonwealth, the governor will veto it, and the NPP lacks the votes to override the veto.

Given these dynamics, the NPP may decide to try another Young Bill in Congress with the assistance of the Bush administration, which may envisage Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union as an opportunity to lock up the Hispanic vote into which the Republicans have been making inroads. The Young Bill defined the plebiscite options in such a way as to exclude commonwealth as we know it from the ballot. It was a one-way ticket into statehood and it faltered when Republicans in both the House and Senate realized that bringing Puerto Rico into the Union meant bringing in a Spanish-speaking state whose population would never be bilingual with an economy dependent on federal funds–not exactly a hotbed of conservative social policies. They further realized excluding commonwealth from the ballot by defining it as unconstitutional would disenfranchise the natural majority of our population, trampling upon the right of self-determination of the Puerto Rican people. They became aware of the fact that bringing Puerto Rico, kicking and screaming, into the Union in this fashion totally would lack legitimacy and would open up political and social turmoil on the island for years to come.

The NPP leadership also became quite aware of this during the first two years of Pedro Rosselló’s second term. They realized a lobbyist-oriented effort wouldn’t suffice to overcome Republican resistance. They turned to the Puerto Rican people as the launching pad for their new efforts in Congress. That’s when the misguided plebiscite was held in 1998 and commonwealth supporters had to vote for none of the above, which won.

They are still oriented in this direction. Their basic mistake is that they want the Congress to rule commonwealth out of the ballot box. They don’t realize such a proposal moves the status battleground to Congress and is a recipe for gridlock in Congress.

Today, a Young Bill would be much harder to move along in Congress because the governor of Puerto Rico would be opposed to it. The elected official and highest representative of the people of Puerto Rico before the Congress is the governor. He is also our principal spokesman before the U.S. media, before U.S. business and academic circles, before unions and community leaders. A Young Bill strategy would be doomed to failure in the face of opposition from the Commonwealth government. Gridlock again. Will Gridlock prevail? Perhaps. Or should we say, most probably. But there is a way out if we decide on fair play and if we are serious in our determination to bring the status question to resolution.

If we want to get a status bill through Congress, it must be fair to the people of Puerto Rico, to the political parties, and to the Congress of the U.S. This means such a bill must ordain a level playing field, and the cards may not be stacked against any of the status options. The NPP has lost every plebiscite in which it was participated, so they want to win in Congress by demonizing Commonwealth. It won’t work. If the status bill isn’t fair, it will raise tremendous opposition from those to whom it is unfair. It won’t get through.

The way forward is the Law 600 model, which ushered in Commonwealth. This law, passed by Congress in 1950, authorized the people of Puerto Rico to call a constitutional convention and, if they so wished, to enter into a compact of association with the U.S. The new Law 600 would authorize the people to call the constitutional convention for the purpose of exercising their right of self-determination. The convention would then propose to Congress whatever option the majority of the delegates to the convention preferred. If Congress accepts the proposal, the new status–enhanced commonwealth, statehood, or independence–would be ushered in. If it rejected the proposal, then new delegates would be elected by the people to present another option to Congress and so on until an agreement is reached between the people and Congress.

This would be fair play by Congress because it is its duty and obligation to provide the means through which the people of Puerto Rico can exercise their right of self-determination. It would be fair play between our political parties because they would have an equal opportunity to elect the delegates and, with a majority to present their option to Congress, it would be fair play to the people because they could choose whatever option they wished and to Congress because it could reject whatever option it didn’t want. But, in fair play, it must decide one way or the other because the greatest injustice to our right of self-determination is to grant it lip service while putting it out in limbo by merely not acting on Puerto Rican proposals.

Rafael Hernández Colón is a three-term (12-year) former governor of Puerto Rico (1973-76 and 1985-92). He had earlier served as secretary of Justice (1965-67) and as president of the Senate (1969-72). He was president of the Popular Democratic Party for 19 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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