Puerto Rican status culminates in historic referendum

The general election may be generating a lot of noise, but there’s hardly any sound coming from the historic referendum, or plebiscite, about to take place in Puerto Rico on November 6th of this year. The first of its kind to be sponsored by the federal government, the ballot will be composed of two parts to determine the territorial status of Puerto Rico. In the first part, its residents will be asked whether they want to continue the status quo as a territory of the U.S. Regardless of this answer, they will then be asked a second question in which they indicate a preference among three alternatives: statehood, complete independence, or a compact of free association with the U.S. The plebiscite emerges as the result of an executive order creating the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status and bipartisan support for the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009.

Previous referendums have been held independently in 1967, 1993, and 1998, with the results being nothing more than political fodder for the local parties. However, the upcoming referendum is unlike anything held on the island before because it is the first time that the federal government will indulge the democratic process by deriving consent from the governed. Its reasons are twofold: first, by opting to have the plebscite federally sponsored as opposed to indepedently hosted, Puerto Ricans are hoping to legitimize the results of the ballot. Many of them believe that even if an alternative to the status quo was preferred, Congress would fail to enact any legislation recognizing it. Lawmakers have answered this skepticism by assuring that the results will be taken seriously in their determination of how to best move foreward with the island’s future. Second, federal sponsorship provides the government with the only way to distinguish plausible ballot options from the implausible options. A persistent problem in Puerto Rican political discourse is the talk of a legally and politically impossible relationship with the U.S. Government known as an “Enhanced Commonwealth” — a proposal that is ridiculous, at best.

The details suggests that Puerto Rico be treated as a sovereign nation, but with a compact of free association with the U.S. This means its residents would be granted dual U.S. and Puerto Rican citizenship, and the island would continue to receive the same financial aid, if not more. Moreover, Puerto Rico would have the ability to nullify most federal laws at will, and to limit the overall jurisdiction of federal courts. It would be allowed to enter international agreements and join international organizations as its own sovereign nation, and if the U.S. government accepted, the free association would be “permanent”, meaning that the U.S. could not alter or withdraw from these terms without Puerto Rican consent. It is clear that the U.S. is trying to squash any relationship that would be out of the question with the territory. Presumably, the terms of the “Enhanced Commonwealth” agreement reflect a sense of repressed identity, as Puerto Ricans attempt to find their own place in the world while trying to embrace an American culture that has dominated them since their acquisition in the 1898 Treaty of Paris that concluded the Spanish-American War.

For years, the territory has been subject to the authority of the federal government, but has not enjoyed any of the rights and protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. This precedent was established by landmark Supreme Court cases Downes v. Bidwell in 1901 and Balzac v. Porto Rico in 1927 that came to be known as the “Insular Cases”. In Downes v. Bidwell, the court narrowly held that the Constitution did not necessarily apply to U.S. territories, but that legislation could be enacted specifically affecting them. This decision was further reaffirmed in Balzac v. Porto Rico, where the high court distinguished between “incorporated” territories, or those on the path to statehood, and “unincorporated” territories, or those whose final status had not yet been determined by Congress.

Of the three alternatives on the November ballot, the implication of an independet Puerto Rico appears to be the riskiest. Though unlikely, the prospect of an addition to the Cuban and Venezuelan alliance would be unfavorable to the U.S. as it loses a political arm in the Caribbean. While the immediate result would not be nearly as devastating as losing a territory in the Pacific, the larger problem lies in the trend that could be established. Once one territory is relinquished, it would be impossible to anticipate the international and diplomatic pressure mounted against the U.S. to relinquish territories in other parts of the world. Of particular concern are the Pacific islands that are key for opening the door to military intervention in Asian affairs, particularly China. In 2006, 2009 and 2011 the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization, a group dedicated to “granting independence to colonial countries and peoples,” repeatedly passed resolutions demanding that the U.S. allow for self-determination in Puerto Rico. The Committee is a 24 member body, with members that include political adversaries Russia, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela. The November referendum will be the first time that the U.S has dedicated major policy efforts on Puerto Rico.

While ultimately the forseeable results of the referendum remain up in the air, discussions seem to indicate that the territory might be headed for something other than more of the same. As is, it’s not obvious what, if any, advantages our nation might derive if we were to entertain the possibility of Puerto Rican statehood. In the status quo, federal funding is justified only by virtue of the fact that the U.S. fundamentally dominates nearly every aspect of the island’s economic and political life while extending no additional privileges to it. But even then, is there really a need to do so? Unlike the Pacific territories, the benefits of maintaining one in the Caribbean appear minimal, if not negative and financially costly. Indeed, the prospect of statehood must be considered seriously. If selected, the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico can be expected to introduce a bill in his House committee advocating for the island’s addition as the 51st state. If the committee votes for the bill to go the whole House, then the legislative process begins. As the Resident Commissioner himself is barred from voting on bills in Congress, the territory would not have a say in the matter. But let’s face it, the differences in culture are too drastic for it to ever self identify as American, and consequently there is little to believe that legislators would say any differently. At the crux of Puerto Rico lies a society that might as well be it’s own country. Or then again, not.

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