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Intense Debate Over Changes in Puerto Rico's Political Status

[All links lead to pages in Spanish, except where otherwise indicated.]

For the first time, a United States Congressman has officially described his country's political relationship with Puerto Rico as “undermining the moral standing” of the United States in the world.

This comment was made by Ron Wyden [en], a Democratic senator from Oregon and chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the committee that holds jurisdiction over all issues in the Senate concerning U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. In a committee hearing on August 1st, the senator made the following statement (which can be heard in this video [en], beginning at minute 0:25):

After 115 years, it is clearly time for Puerto Rico to determine what political path it will take. The question of whether Puerto Rico should become a state or a sovereign nation, or whether there are other options, defines much of the political debate today on the island. Puerto Rico faces huge economic and social challenges. Per capita income is stuck at about half that of the poorest U. S. state and the violent crime rate is well above the national crime rate, and rising. The lack of resolution of Puerto Rico's status not only distracts from addressing these and other issues, it contributes to them. [...] Puerto Rico must either exercise full self-government as a sovereign nation or achieve equality among the states of the Union. The current relationship undermines our country's moral standing in the world.

Luego de 115 años, claramente es tiempo de que Puerto Rico determine qué vía política tomará. La cuestión de si Puerto Rico debe convertirse en un estado o en una nación soberana, o si existen otras opciones, define gran parte del debate hoy en la Isla. Puerto Rico enfrenta retos sociales y económicos enormes. El ingreso per cápita está estancado más o menos a la mitad del del estado más pobre de los EEUU y la tasa de crímenes violentos está muy por encima del promedio nacional, y aumenta cada vez más. La falta de resolución del estatus de Puerto Rico no solo distrae de atender estos y otros asuntos, sino que contribuye a ellos. [...] Puerto Rico debe autogobernarse totalmente como un estado soberano, o lograr la igualdad entre los estados de la Unión. La relación actual socava la fuerza moral de nuestro país en el mundo.

The committee hearing, chaired by Senator Wyden, was held in conjunction with the Puerto Rican status referendum which took place on November 2012.

Emblemas de alternativas de estatus político.

Symbols representing various political status options for Puerto Rico, as used on the ballot of the November 6, 2012 referendum: the star containing the number 51 represents Puerto Rico's inclusion as the 51st U.S. State; the native pitirre, or gray kingbird, represents commonwealth status; and the map of the Puerto Rican archipelago represents independence.

The referendum resulted in a rejection of Puerto Rico's current political status, the so-called Estado Libre Asociado (ELA), also known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with 53.97% of constituents in favor of a change of status. But as to the question of which type of status the voters actually preferred for Puerto Rico, the results were not as clear. A cursory review of the data indicates that among the three status options, namely statehood (annexation), independence, and commonwealth status, statehood won out with 61.16% of the votes, followed by commonwealth status with 33.34%, and independence with 5.49%. However, if we include the 498,604 blank ballots submitted by many constituents as a symbol of protest over the voting process, the results look very different. The percentage for statehood is reduced dramatically to 44.4%, commonwealth status to 24.2%, and independence to 4%. To offer an idea of what these blank ballots represent, the commonwealth status received 454,768 votes. The option of Estado Libre Asociado in its current form was excluded from the ballot.

President Obama did not dispatch an administerial representative to attend the Senate committee hearing. It is also worth noting that of the twenty-two senators on the committee, only three attended the hearing. It appears that the Obama administration has responded just as the U.S. government had expected all along. It would not be unreasonable to say that President Obama decided to ignore the results of the November referendum, as Charles R. Venator Santiago, writing for Latino Decisions [en], has suggested:

President Obama’s request to fund a federal plebiscite for Puerto Rico sends a clear message that he does not recognize the outcome of the 2012 plebiscite [...]. This position is consistent with earlier statements by President Obama indicating that he would only support an outcome that reflected a substantive majority of the vote (presumably at least a two-thirds majority).

La petición del presidente Obama de financiar un plebiscito federal para Puerto Rico envía un mensaje claro de que no reconoce el resultado del plebiscito de 2012 [...]. Esta posición es consistente con declaraciones anteriores por el presidente Obama que indican que solo apoyaría un resultado que reflejara una mayoría sustancial de votos (presumiblemente al menos una mayoría de dos tercios).

Other proposals on the table include a referendum supported by the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico (the non-voting Puerto Rican delegate to Congress), Pedro Pierluisi, of the New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista, or PNP), in which Puerto Ricans would be given the opportunity to vote YES or NO regarding statehood, and the prospect of holding a Constitutional Assembly on status supported by some sectors of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). As of now, neither of the two proposals is strongly supported by the United States government.

Emilio Pantojas García, in his article for 80 grados magazine, claims that, given the U.S. track record of non-action regarding the status of Puerto Rico whenever a referendum is held, there is no reason to expect anything different on this occasion:

Es improbable que el Congreso apruebe alguna de estas medidas. Si nunca ha actuado sobre las propuestas radicadas, y las iniciativas presidenciales siempre han estado enmarcadas en cambios importantes en las relaciones interamericanas, por qué van a actuar ahora. Por qué pensar que la mayoría republicana en la Cámara va a considerar y aprobar un proyecto de estadidad. Los republicanos tradicionalmente se oponen a la estadidad para Puerto Rico, primero, porque la Isla es culturalmente una nación latinoamericana cuyo vernáculo es el español (apenas 10 por ciento de los puertorriqueños residentes en la Isla son bilingües). Segundo, la Isla es un bastión demócrata que añadiría dos senadores y cinco o seis congresistas para ese partido. A esto se añaden razones transitorias como que el gobierno de Puerto Rico está al borde de la bancarrota fiscal, la economía pasa por una contracción severa y el desempleo provoca la emigración masiva de los trabajadores/as más diestros/as. Puerto Rico sería un estado mendigo, una carga para un gobierno federal que tampoco está en su mejor momento. A la luz de la experiencia histórica, nada va a pasar con las iniciativas de status [sic], pero los que no conocen la historia están condenados a repetirla.

It's unlikely that Congress will approve any of these measures. If it has never acted on any of the proposals put forth, and if presidential initiatives have always been based on important changes in Inter-American relations, why would they act now? Why should anyone think that the Republican majority in the House is going to consider and approve a proposal for statehood? Republicans have traditionally opposed statehood for Puerto Rico, in the first place, because the island is culturally a Latin-American nation whose vernacular is Spanish (barely 10% of Puerto Ricans residing on the island are bilingual). Secondly, the island is a bastion for Democrats, and [statehood] would add two senators and five or six congressional delegates to the Democratic Party. Add to that such provisional considerations as the fact that Puerto Rico is on the verge bankruptcy, its economy is in the midst of an economic downturn, and unemployment is driving massive emigration of the most highly-skilled workers. Puerto Rico would become a beggar state and a burden on the federal government, which itself has seen better days. If we judge by past experience, nothing is going to happen with any of the status initiatives; but those who haven't learned from history are destined to repeat it.

Xavier “Xavi” Luis Burgos, writing for the digital magazine Gozamos [en] on the occasion of last November's referendum, states that the question is really whether the United States will honor its rhetoric of democracy:

[T]he real debate is not whether Puerto Ricans voted for statehood and whether the United States is going to “allow” that to happen. Instead, we must beg the question: What is the responsibility of the United States in living up to its rhetoric of democracy? This is not to say that the U.S. government must address the problems it created with religious paternalism, like it does when it brings “democracy” to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Democratic processes are about having people engaged in determining their futures, through discussion, debate, and consensus. Puerto Rico was never offered this. Puerto Ricans have never been seen as full human beings in need of true self-determination. Therefore, in order for the United States to strive for a democratic potential, it must recognize its imperial stains and be a sincere and dedicated companion to reconciliation.

El debate real no es si los puertorriqueños votaron por la estadidad y si los Estados Unidos “permitirán” que eso suceda. En cambio, debemos hacernos la pregunta: ¿Cuál es la responsabilidad de los Estados Unidos en hacerle honor a su retórica de democracia? No se debe entender que el gobierno estadounidense debe atender con paternalismo religioso los problemas que creó, como hace cuando le lleva la “democracia” a países como Irak y Afganistán. Los procesos democráticos tratan sobre tener a la gente comprometida con la determinación de sus futuros mediante la discusión, el debate y el consenso. A Puerto Rico nunca se le ofreció esto. A los puertorriqueños nunca se les ha visto como seres humanos completos necesitados de verdadera autodeterminación. Por lo tanto, para que los Estados Unidos trate de alcanzar su potencial democrático, debe reconocer la mancha del imperialismo y ser un compañero sincero y dedicado a la reconciliación.

You can view the entire hearing by clicking here [en] (it begins around minute 22:45).

Cover photo taken from this video.

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