The Need For A Clear Message

by John Marino

July 15, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. In this most political month, Puerto Ricans could have "taken one of the more significant steps in recent years to resolve the status dilemma," as the recent Congressional Research Report released in May characterized the unanimous legislative enactment of a tripartisan status bill.

It would have culminated with a referendum calling on Congress and the White House to take action to resolve the island’s status.

Instead, Gov. Acevedo Vilá vetoed the legislation, and another bill that would have canceled the unicameral referendum last week, which drew a historic low voter participation rate of about 22 percent.

Sure voters also overwhelmingly voted to "cut the legislature in half" by supporting a unicameral body, but it was an expensive enterprise for a rushed vote with few guarantees. Political status activists, from all ideologies, meanwhile, argue that the status referendum would have forced the U.S. government to engage in the process to resolve status, a key requirement for serious action.

Blame it on local politics.

In July, it is impossible not to view the recent referendum through the larger prism of status politics. The Fourth of July here is just the first holiday to get the political discussion rolling, with statehooders using U.S. Independence Day as a rallying cry for their cause, while independence supporters often find something to protest about on July 4. A crescendo of sorts is reached on July 25, which serves as a triple anniversary for the landing of U.S. troops in 1898, the birth of the commonwealth status and the double murders of two independence supporters by police on Cerro Maravilla.

Throw in the birthdays of statehood advocate José Celso Barbosa and autonomist Luis Muñoz Rivera, and it's easy to see why political status is in the air.

The results of the unicameral referendum legitimized by Gov. Acevedo Vilá, who vetoed New Progressive Party legislation that would have delayed it, can be seen as a public backlash against the local political establishment. There were two key figures arising from the vote – only 22.3 percent participation and a whopping 83.4 percent of those bothering to vote did so for a unicameral legislature. Both are evidence of deep dissatisfaction with local politics.

And that’s interesting to note in terms of political status. Status activists, from all political parties, have criticized the federal government’s seeming reticence to take action on the issue over the years.

The CRS report released in late May acknowledges the lack of action: "Relatively little attention has been given to the issue of the political status of Puerto Rico in recent years."

But it laid a portion of the blame on the lack of agreement among Puerto Rico’s political parties on not only which possible political status resolutions would be viable, but also on a process to address the situation. "Obstacles on process have always been a part of the status debate," the report states. "Agreement on the process to be used in considering the proposals has been as elusive as agreement on an end result."

If Puerto Rico’s political parties could agree on how to proceed, the federal government would likely engage in the process, the report adds.

The report’s major finding is: both the unanimously approved status legislation by the island legislature and the White House Task Force on status can serve as catalysts for renewed federal-commonwealth action on status.

It does note that the Acevedo Vilá administration veto brings the discussion to a halt. But it still says these two developments could push the issue forward.

"Legislation recently passed by the Puerto Rican legislature may be one factor that initiates renewed congressional attention on the political status issue. A White House task force is expected to release a report in 2005 that may serve as another catalyst for change," the report states.

"Congressional action might also be initiated if the legislature and governor of Puerto Rico reached a consensus on the initiation of the status," the report concluded.

Acevedo Vilá vetoed historic status legislation that could have pushed the issue forward, and his predecessor sat on it during her four years in office. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló created momentum on the issue, holding two plebiscites and sparking sustained Congressional debate on Puerto Rico’s political status, but the efforts ultimately fell short.

Washington, D.C. isn’t quite listening to the political status debate. But if there were a unified call from San Juan on what to do, the federal government would comply.

With a substantial population stateside, nearing 4 million, Puerto Rico issues can register on the national scene when there is unity behind a theme. But a century on in the U.S.-P.R. relationship, a unified voice on political status has yet to be found.

Advocates of federal unilateral action on status argue such divisiveness is merely a symptom of the island’s colonial condition, requiring the proactive response of the U.S. government.

But consider the congressman considering a stance on island status, an action sure to anger half the constituency he is striving to address no matter what he does. At least, he needs to be asked to do something specific, something with the wide backing of the Puerto Rican people.

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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