A Call To Washington On Status

by John Marino

February 25, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Momentum is building in Puerto Rico to call on the U.S. Congress and White House to take a stand on the issue of the island’s political status.

Both the New Progressive and Puerto Rican Independence parties have filed legislation this week that asks Washington, D.C. to map out viable alternatives from which Puerto Rico can escape its centuries-old status quandary.

Hearings on three separate status bills, each filed by Puerto Rico’s three political parties, get underway today, with New Progressive Party President Pedro Rosselló testifying. NPP Senate and House leaders have said they aim to create a compromise measure from the three bills that will be acceptable to all parties.

It is the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party proposal, however, that is the most different from the other two proposals. Rather than calling on Washington for action, Gov. Acevedo Vilá’s plan calls for a vote in which islanders would decide to petition Congress to define status options in a federally backed vote, or elect a constituent assembly in San Juan to formulate status policy and then attempt to get Washington approval.

The PDP has the most to lose in going to Washington; its rosy vision of what commonwealth can be is unlikely to fly in the nation’s capital. Proposals about an enhanced commonwealth in San Juan, which would allow the island to enter treaties with foreign countries and decide which federal laws apply here, have little chance of finding acceptance among Congress and the White House.

Both the executive and legislative branches of Congress, through the White House Task Force on Status under former President Bill Clinton and the Young Bill, have already called unconstitutional the PDP’s definition of commonwealth as a "bilateral pact" between Puerto Rico and the United States. Both branches of government opined that the current relationship is territorial, i.e. colonial.

Of course any pressure to engage Washington on status holds equal peril for statehooders, especially with the Republicans in control of Congress and the White House. Some prominent NPP leaders have openly questioned the GOP’s resolve in dealing with status, accusing it of not wanting a Hispanic state, likely to vote for its opponents. And for many independentistas, convinced that a petition for statehood would be rejected, a "confrontation" with Washington is their best hope to win sovereignty for Puerto Rico.

But local Republicans note that the Bush administration has picked up on Clinton’s initiative, extending the life of the commission, which is expected to release a report on island status sometime this year. They see that, coupled with a Congressional report on the island’s economic situation this year, as evidence that the Republicans could take decisive action on Puerto Rico’s status.

Both the NPP and PDP are acutely attuned to the competing mechanisms out there being pushed to resolve status. Just the way the question on the ballot is posed could swing the vote one way or another for either of the two majority parties.

In past status votes, a coalition of commonwealth and independence supporters have been able to block statehood from getting a majority, with a PDP-defined commonwealth winning in 1993 and the "none of the above" option winning in 1998. But this time around, independentista leaders are supporting the NPP’s call to Washington for action on status.

The NPP’s bill proposes a referendum this summer in which Puerto Ricans will vote on whether or not to call on the president and Congress to spell out the viable decolonization options for Puerto Rico.?The petition says the definitions would be used in a Congressionally binding plebiscite containing non-colonial and non-territorial status options. ?

The PIP plan also calls for a "yes-no" referendum this summer on whether to call on Congress and the president to "resolve the political status problem among full democratic alternatives that are non-colonial and non-territorial." The PIP bill does not spell out a specific mechanism to resolve the status debate, but gives Washington a time frame in which to act, or it would switch its support to a calling of a constituent assembly, backed by the PDP.

Finally, the Acevedo Vilá plan calls on islanders to choose in a summer plebiscite between a constituent assembly and a petition to Congress on a federally backed vote.

Various commonwealth supporters have already denounced the PIP-NPP alliance as a conspiracy to rob Puerto Ricans of their majority choice. That’s just more evidence that the PIP’s current stand on the issue is beneficial to the statehood status strategy.

But both the PIP and NPP should take note; it’s much easier to vote against something than it is to vote for it, as past status votes have shown. That suggests a "yes-no" format actually works against proponents of a "yes" vote.

In all three proposals, there is a basic question being asked: do the Puerto Rican people want Washington to address the question of the island’s political status. If Puerto Ricans can agree on how to ask that question, its answer will certainly resonate in Washington and push the status debate forward in a definitive way.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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