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Presentation by

Jeffrey L. Farrow

Co-Chair, the President’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico 1994-2001

Staff Director, U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs 1982-1994


The American University School of Public Affairs

Washington, D.C.


Puerto Rico in Search of Full Democracy

April 20, 2005

I have been asked to give the federal institutional position on Puerto Rico’s status issue. I emphasize this because what I report will not, in all cases, reflect my own preferences. I have advised and represented two Presidents, the U.S. House of Representatives committee with jurisdiction over the issue under five chairmen, and presidential nominees on the issue. You cannot last in these positions if you do not accurately give them all sides of the story and reflect their views. I have also felt that I had to be precise and as candid as the politics would permit to help Puerto Ricans on the issue. I will make several points.

First, Puerto Rico is unincorporated territory of the U.S., although it calls its local government "[t]he Commonwealth" in English and words in Spanish that literally translate into English as "associated free state" and even though some call its political status "commonwealth." "Commonwealth" is not a constitutional status per se. Four U.S. States also use the word in the official name of their local governments. So does another U.S. territory. Puerto Rico also is not a freely associated state -- a status in U.S. and international law under which a territory becomes a sovereign nation but lets a larger nation exercise some of its sovereign powers on the condition that it can unilaterally reclaim the powers. Nor is Puerto Rico a "country," as the governor calls it, although it can be one.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice and State Departments and other federal authorities have all confirmed that Puerto Rico remains subject to the Congress’ broad territory governing powers. So have innumerable federal laws.

Whatever the name of the status, however, the pertinent point is that it is undemocratic at the national government level: it does not provide equal voting representation in the government that makes and implements Puerto Rico’s national laws -- most of its laws now that the federal government has taken over so much of the responsibility of government. Former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, the most influential advocate of "commonwealth" for more than three decades, hit the nail on the head when he wrote of "the present undemocratic arrangement."

Second, as unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico’s ultimate status is undetermined. The issue will continue as long as the governing arrangement for Puerto Rico is undemocratic. All peoples have a continuing right to a democratic form of government.

Third, Puerto Rico’s status issue is more of a problem for Puerto Ricans than for the U.S. -- although it has sometimes been a headache. Puerto Rico has more people than almost half of the States. That the States govern Puerto Rico without Puerto Rican votes is more of a problem for Puerto Rico than the States. That Puerto Rico -- with almost half its population below the federal poverty level -- receives far less than the States in major programs for aid to the needy is more of a problem for Puerto Rico than the States.

Most important, Puerto Ricans have not asked for a status option or stated clearly that they do not want the islands to remain unincorporated territory.

I said that Puerto Ricans have not asked for a status option but they have made "commonwealth" autonomy proposals in the past. This brings me to my main point: The issue has not been resolved because of two factors -- unrealistic "commonwealth" proposals and local, primarily "commonwealth" party, politics. Further, federal officials have always responded to Puerto Rican proposals for action on the issue.

"Commonwealth" bills were considered but rejected in 1953, 1959, and 1963. "Commonwealth" proposals were also rejected by a Kennedy White House task force of the highest level.

The rejections led to a law for a joint status commission that called for a referendum. A "commonwealth" proposal won in 1967, but in 1968 Puerto Ricans elected a statehooder governor, turning away from that proposal.

That governor was replaced by Governor Hernandez Colon who convinced President Nixon to name a joint advisory group that actually proposed "commonwealth" autonomy. But the proposal was rejected in Congress in 1976. Additionally, statehooders won the elections that year, further burying the proposal.

When some 350,000 Puerto Ricans petitioned for statehood in 1985, the U.S. House committee with jurisdiction over territorial affairs suggested a referendum among statehood, "commonwealth," and independence options. The re-elected Hernandez Colon pursued the idea in 1989, obtaining commitments from President Bush and the Senate and House chairmen for legislation authorizing a referendum. The statehood and independence parties joined in the request.

The House and Senate committees approved bills by the end of the 101st Congress, but most of Hernandez Colon’s "commonwealth" proposals were rejected. When the lead Senate committee split 10-10 between two alternative bills in 1991, he asked the Senate and House chairmen to drop the legislation even though at least one senator offered to switch between the alternatives to pass a bill.

Puerto Rico held its own referendum under Governor Pedro Rossello in 1993. A "Commonwealth" option "won" but it did not get a majority of the vote. Further, it made misleading claims about "Commonwealth" and proposed unrealistic economic benefits. Perhaps the most revealing was a request for a repeal of a law that had been enacted just two months before partially taxing income of manufacturers based in the States.

In 1995, our administration called for legislation authorizing a referendum among proposals from Puerto Rico’s three political parties as agreed to by the federal government.

In 1996, the House committee passed a bill authorizing a choice between the territory’s current status and the fully democratic options of nationhood and U.S. statehood. Commonwealthers said Rossello’s bid for re-election would be a referendum on the bill. He won with a majority no governor had obtained in three decades.

A bill with amendments that responded to "commonwealth" party proposals to the maximum extent possible, however, was approved by the House in 1998 but the party, led by now Governor Acevedo, campaigned against it. He said he wanted no bill while Rossello was in office and an associate added that this would have been the case even if we had accepted the party’s proposal for "commonwealth" verbatim. The campaign lobbied Congress directly and through right-wing groups in the States, objecting to any statehood option on the grounds that Puerto Ricans predominantly spoke Spanish and had high rates of poverty and unwed births.

The bill had substantial bipartisan support in the Senate, however, Acevedo convinced Senate Majority leaders Lott and Nickles to block votes on it.

This caused Rossello to call another local referendum. A Democratic threat to propose an amendment supporting the referendum to every bill the full Senate considered forced Lott and Nickles to back down from their "commonwealth" party-prompted opposition. They did not want a public debate against letting an Hispanic community seek statehood.

The 1998 referendum included Puerto Rico’s four real status options: the status quo; statehood; independence; and nationhood in an association with the U.S. It also included a "None of the Above" option.

Acevedo challenged the referendum in the courts claiming it inaccurately described "commonwealth." The challenges failed.

He then led his party in adopting a new "commonwealth" proposal and said a vote for "None of the Above" would be a vote for it. It called for a "Constituent Assembly" to propose that Puerto Rico be recognized as a nation to which the U.S. is bound. The Commonwealth would have the powers to determine the application of federal laws and to enter into international commercial agreements that require national sovereignty. The U.S. would continue to grant free entry into the U.S. market, citizenship, all assistance currently granted Puerto Ricans, and a new subsidy for the Commonwealth government.

"None of the Above" won a bare majority.

So, in 2000, President Clinton took several steps to clarify Puerto Rico’s real status options to enable Puerto Ricans to choose.?

  • He won enactment of a law providing funding for a Puerto Rican status choice among options proposed by Puerto Rico’s tri-partisan elections commission as agreed to by the Office of the President. The legislation was enacted over Lott’s "commonwealth" party-generated opposition, in part because Hispanic constituents pressured the House Republican subcommittee chairman.
  • A presidential task force was established to work with Puerto Rican leaders and the congressional committees on the options and the process for Puerto Rico choosing a new status. The task force is to continue to work until Puerto Rico obtains a status that provides for a democratic form of government at the national government level.
  • In response to requests from the Senate and House committees, we also submitted a report on the status proposals of all three parties. The report concluded that Acevedo’s "commonwealth" proposal was an incompatible combination of aspects of different statuses. It found only minor issues regarding the proposals of the statehood and independence parties.

President Bush acted to continue the task force shortly after taking office in 2001. Then Governor Calderon and Acevedo, then Puerto Rico’s representative to the federal government, however, lobbied Bush’s staff against implementation of the status choice law and activation of the Task Force. In December 2003, Bush delayed the deadline for a Task Force report on progress made in resolving the issue until this coming December.

The "commonwealth" party readopted Acevedo’s 1998 "commonwealth" proposal in 2004, and he has recently reiterated it remains the objective of the "Constitutional Assembly" he is insisting upon.

Here are some reasons why the proposal is not a status option.

  • Neither the U.S. nor Puerto Rico would be sovereign nations if they were permanently bound to one another. National sovereignty means that a nation can determine its ties to another nation.
  • There would be havoc if Puerto Rico could unilaterally opt in and out of laws.
  • Puerto Rico would not really be a nation if all of its people -- including all those born after it had supposedly become a nation -- were to be U.S. citizens. Puerto Ricans would not really want nationhood if they wanted to retain U.S. citizenship. U.S. citizenship presumes primary loyalty to the U.S. U.S. citizens in a nation of Puerto Rico would be taxed, and they could be drafted.
  • If Puerto Rico could make its own trade agreements with other countries but goods could still travel freely from Puerto Rico to the U.S., shipments otherwise prohibited by the U.S. could freely enter the U.S. from Puerto Rico.

Fifth, Puerto Rico’s status will change when Puerto Ricans choose a recognized status option or a governing arrangement that federal officials agree can be implemented. Most of the issues in Puerto Rico’s debate are federal questions. It is highly unlikely that a status process in which Puerto Ricans settle on a status proposal unilaterally, such as the "Constitutional Assembly" Governor Acevedo is pushing, can succeed.

It definitely cannot if the process accomplishes his goal of adopting his "Commonwealth" proposal. Although Puerto Rican majority support is needed for the territory’s status to change, policy changes that would require federal approval that are not options from the federal point of view will not succeed no matter how extensive their local support.

Sixth, Puerto Ricans should understand the alternatives to continued territory status: statehood and nationhood. Statehood is defined by the Constitution and is equality in the American system. With the increasing Hispanic vote, it would be political suicide for either national party to oppose statehood on the grounds that Puerto Rico is too Hispanic if the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, who have sacrificed so much for the U.S., ask for statehood.

Puerto Ricans should also understand that the U.S. would go to great lengths to make independence viable if Puerto Ricans sought nationhood after over a century of relations.

Related to this is that Puerto Rico can also become a nation in a true free association with the U.S. The U.S. has free association relationships with three island groups in the Pacific. A free association relationship with Puerto Rico should be at least as generous as the Pacific island arrangements, given the much closer relationship that the U.S. has had with Puerto Rico than it had with the Pacific islands, which were merely U.N. territories administered by the U.S.

Seventh, to many in official Washington, the issue appears to be one more of local partisan politics than serious. Can educated Puerto Rican leaders really believe that the federal government will empower the Commonwealth to determine the application of federal laws? Washington is full of politicians who know promises made simply to win elections when they see them.

Puerto Rican divisions, efforts to sabotage sincere federal efforts to respond to requests for action on the issue -- particularly by commonwealthers who fear Congress confirming that statehood is an option will result in a statehood majority in Puerto Rico, and ‘pie-in-the-sky’ "commonwealth" proposals are often why federal officials say to Puerto Ricans: ‘It’s up to you to decide’ and ‘Come back to us when you have a consensus on at least how to proceed.’

Finally, a personal view that President Clinton shared: I take no sides among the options. I do not believe I should. But I strongly believe that the U.S., which acquired Puerto Rico in war, has an obligation to enable Puerto Ricans to have a status that provides a democratic form of government at the national government level -- the one they want from among all the real options and if they want one -- and I have worked hard for that.


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