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A Constitutional Assembly To Solve Our Status Issue?
By CARLOS ROMERO BARCELO
February 24, 2005
The status issue, as we call the discussion of the alternatives to our political, economic, and legal relationship with the 50 states of the union, has been under discussion since Puerto Rico became a colony, or a territory, of the U.S. at the end of the 19th century.
From the end of the Spanish American War in 1898 and up to 1952, we gradually achieved more autonomy and more self-government. During those years, no one in Puerto Rico doubted that we were a colony, or as others preferred, a territory of the United States. From the time the U.S. troops landed in Puerto Rico, we were ruled by a military government until May 1, 1900, when the Organic Act of 1900 went into effect.
At that time, we were granted authority to elect a House of Delegates and the other House, which was not elected, but appointed by the president of the U.S. with the advice and consent of the Senate. It was called the Executive Council, and consisted of 11 members; six were appointed by the president to act as secretary, attorney general, treasurer, auditor, commissioner of the interior, and commissioner of education. The other five people, native inhabitants of Puerto Rico, were also appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, but with no specific duties, except those to be designated by the Puerto Rico Legislature. The glaring omission and great disappointment in Puerto Rico was the failure of Congress to grant us U.S. citizenship.
As I have said, at the time, no one in Puerto Rico seriously believed or claimed we werent a colony or a territory. Inevitably, the colonial, and/or territorial relationship, became more and more untenable; and, in 1917, the Organic Act of 1917, better known as the Jones Act, was passed by Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson.
The Jones Act expanded our autonomy and granted us a Senate, all members to be elected by the people of Puerto Rico. We were also granted U.S. citizenship. In 17 years, we made political headway, which gave us substantially more authority and autonomy over our local matters. However, we still couldnt elect our own governor and were subject to substantial authority and control by the federal government.
From 1917 to 1948, no significant changes were made in our political and legal relationship with the states of the union, but for the first time since Puerto Rico became a colony of the U.S., we started to participate much more in federal programs, which provided us with substantial resources to improve our health, education, and housing programs, together with increased federal funding for development of our infrastructure.
During those 35 years from 1917 to 1948, as a result of the lack of attention to our colonial status, the independence movement gained strength and momentum.
Immediately after World War II, the colonial issue, particularly the British and French empires, became an issue of worldwide importance. As a result of international discussions, the colonial or territorial issue of Puerto Rico became more and more uncomfortable for the U.S. in all international forums, particularly in the United Nations. As a result, President Truman proposed, and Congress enacted, a law that provided for the first governor to be elected in Puerto Rico. Thus, in 1948, we elected our governor, for the first time since Christopher Columbus set foot on our island.
However, allowing us to elect our own governor wasnt enough. A plan to grant Puerto Rico more autonomy began to be discussed. No matter how much the planners tried, it soon became obvious that Congress could not permanently delegate its authority over its citizens, nor could Congress limit future Congresses from exercising the authority and powers granted to it by the Constitution.
As a colony or territory, Puerto Rico had achieved all the authority and powers it could exercise. In order to ease the international pressure on several nations, including the U.S., to divest themselves of their colonies, a plan to draft and submit a Constitution, drafted by Puerto Ricans and adopted by a referendum, was implemented and the so-called Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established in 1952. Other than the change of the official name from Territory to Commonwealth and the adoption of a Constitution, which was drafted subject to the guidelines for a republican form of government as established in the Jones Act, no substantial change was made. As a matter of fact, the new name of the Territory in Spanish is Estado Libre Asociado, but Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín was advised that if the bill were to be filed in Congress, translating the name as Free Associated State, it would never be approved in Congress. For that reason, the word Commonwealth was used, which can mean state, territory, or nation. What we actually did in 1952 was to consent to the colonial relationship. Instead of voting for more autonomy as our people were led to believe, we actually voted to validate the colonial relationship by accepting it and ratifying it freely and voluntarily.
We are at the "end of the tether." Fifty-six years have now gone by since 1948 without any significant change in our status. Why? Because the only changes in our relationship available under our U.S. Constitution are two: we either achieve full political equality as U.S. citizens, or we give up our U.S. citizenship and become a separate nation. As a Republic, we could then try to negotiate whatever association we would like which, in political and economic terms, would be acceptable to the U.S. Congress.
However, Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and the leadership of the Popular Democratic Party refuse to acknowledge publicly that in order to exclude Puerto Rico from Article IV, Section 3(2) of the U.S. Constitution, we cant remain citizens of the U.S. Why? Because the minute they accept that in order to exclude Puerto Rico from the territorial clause we must give up our U.S. citizenship, they know the Popular Party will be doomed politically.
Acevedo Vilá knows this, and that is why he wants a constitutional assemblyto delay the solution and confuse the people.
In the first place, a constitutional assembly is, by definition, elected or appointed in order to draft a new constitution or to amend the existing one. It is absurd to elect or appoint a constitutional assembly to tell us how to go about solving our status issue. After 104 years of discussing the issue? Thats nonsense. What we need is the presidents and Congress commitment to abide by the decision of the 4 million U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico. The decision as to whether we want to have full and equal voting and representation rights as U.S. citizens, or whether we want to relinquish our citizenship and establish ourselves as a free and separate republic, or as a free associated republic.
That is precisely why Pedro Rossellós proposal is the best and fastest way to solve our status dilemma. What Rosselló proposes is: (1) that we hold a referendum that responds to what we all agree upon, which is that the present political status doesnt satisfy us as providing an acceptable relationship and that it is necessary to change it; and (2) that the new status must be one that is noncolonial and/or nonterritorial [i.e. outside of the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution, Art. IV, Sect. 3 (2)].
If the majority of the people of Puerto Rico votes yes on this referendum, we can then forcefully demand from the president and the Congress that they provide us, through Congress, with the noncolonial alternatives and let the 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico decide. Rosselló has no doubt, and I agree with him, that with such a mandate from the people of Puerto Rico, we can prevail in solving our status dilemma.
A Constitutional Assembly? Just another committee and a waste of time, effort, and money.
Carlos Romero Barceló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.