At the end of last year, a law was finally passed ordering a referendum to be held on Puerto Rico’s political status. One would think, after all the discussion and arguments about what the referendum should accomplish and what choices should be presented to voters, that the law would be clear and precise, and the result would leave no doubt about what the people of Puerto Rico want. However, the law passed is anything but clear and precise. On the contrary, the law not only is vague in parts and Confusing in others, but also could be contradictory in its outcome.
Instead of clarifying the doubts and confusion many have expressed, it creates even more uncertainty than the original proposal. Clearly, to have held a first vote on whether we wanted a territorial or colonial relationship, on a different date, provided a result that either made the second vote unnecessary or would provide for a clear and precise choice. Yet, the definitions of the options left much to be desired. The options were, and will always be, open to confusion whenever “commonwealth” is included as a choice.
In its introductory statement, the Puerto Rico Legislature quotes parts of the White House Task Force Report that states the Popular Democratic Party’s historical proposal of a “New Commonwealth” is unconstitutional: “The U.S. Constitution would not permit the New Commonwealth proposal because land under the United States Sovereignty must either be a State or a Territory.”
It also recognized that a “free association” pact is a form of independence and could be offered as an alternative to independence. However, they also made it clear that the particulars of any such agreement could be unilaterally revoked by either party. Nonetheless, what the supporters of commonwealth aren’t willing to accept is that a free association compact, as a form of independence, would mean those born in Puerto Rico after the establishment of a free association wouldn’t be natural-born U.S. citizens.
In its introductory statement, the Legislature emphasizes that the Task Force strongly recommended “the President and the Congress support any fair, transparent and clear effort that reflects and is in agreement with the will of the Puerto Rican people.” However, instead of enacting a fair, transparent and clear referendum, it is, as I have said before, a vague, Confusing and even contradictory process.
The referendum will be held at the same time as the elections on Nov. 6, 2012, and two questions will be on the ballot. The first question will be: “Do you agree and support maintaining the present territorial political status? Yes___ No___?” Although the island’s present political status is territorial, in constitutional and legal terms, under the U.S. Constitution, it is also a colonial status pursuant to international definition of a colony.
Was the word “colonial” eliminated to satisfy former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón and other commonwealth supporters? We shouldn’t continue being accomplices to the false and fraudulent assertions perpetuated upon our fellow citizens and upon the United Nations. The sooner we convince our fellow citizens in the 50 states that Puerto Rico is a colony, the more pressure there will be on the president and Congress to resolve our status dilemma.
A “yes” vote should not only acknowledge that Puerto Rico is a territory subject to the territorial clause, which grants Congress the power and authority to govern and enact laws by which we must abide, but should also acknowledge that Puerto Rico is a colony. Why not call a spade a spade?
The legal and constitutional architect of the so-called “commonwealth status,” José Trías Monge, defended full and complete autonomy for Puerto Rico for decades, including the years he was chief judge of the local Supreme Court. However, after he retired, he wrote a book in which he acknowledged Puerto Rico was the world’s last colony.
As a result of the amendments to the status referendum law, a majority vote in favor of Puerto Rico’s territorial status would contradict a majority for any of the three options provided in the second question on the ballot. Clearly, a majority vote for statehood, independence or sovereign commonwealth would be a vote for a nonterritorial status, which would contradict the affirmative vote on the first question.
I am convinced that not only are the voting alternatives provided by the referendum lawConfusing and contradictory, but the ballot would also probably be held by court to be soConfusing as to be null and void. I wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the U.S. House and Senate, the media and political pundits in the States would even make fun and ridicule Puerto Rico’s status referendum law. It would be very difficult to convince Congress, the White House and the stateside media that the law is clear, precise and fair.
The law is not only imprecise and contradictory, but also contains several misconceptions that confuse instead of educate voters. In the law’s definition of statehood, the official name of the nation is erroneous. The law refers to the U.S. of Northamerica, which is nonexistent.
The statehood option asserts that voters prefer Puerto Rico be a state of the U.S. of Northamerica, with equal rights, benefits and responsibilities as other states of the Union. The correct name is the United States of America. Furthermore, it isn’t the states that have rights, benefits and responsibilities; it is the citizens who have rights, benefits and responsibilities.
In addition, it isn’t the states that vote for president and have the right to full representation in Congress; it is the citizens who reside in any given state who have the right to vote for the president and elect representatives and senators to Congress.
The entire statehood option should be amended to make it clear to everyone that we understand our democratic form of government as a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
We still have time to amend the status referendum law and make the changes that would make the option clear and precise to voters, while at the same time simplifying the process and giving us, the nation and the world a very clear message about what the majority of U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico want.
The referendum would then become a process to define and establish the rights of the individual U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico and not a debate on political, legal and constitutional issues that the majority of people don’t quite understand or care about much. However, everyone is interested in his or her rights, privileges and benefits, as well as his or her duties and responsibilities as citizens. The vote becomes a personal issue and not a conceptual issue.
I propose that the statehood option be amended to read as follows:
“As a United States citizen and as a resident of Puerto Rico I want to have and hereby demand the same rights, privileges and benefits, as well as the same duties and obligations, that all other U.S. citizens have in the 50 states of the Union, including the right to vote for president and the right to elect representatives and senators to the nation’s Congress. Yes___ or No___.”
The only way a majority vote for equal rights could be made a reality would be for Congress to enact an enabling bill to provide for Puerto Rico’s admission as a state. A majority vote would therefore constitute a mandate to Puerto Rico’s governor and Legislature to provide the funds and enact laws ordering the government of Puerto Rico and the resident commissioner to carry out all necessary actions and campaigns to achieve the people of Puerto Rico’s demand for equality.
If we act now, we have time to make all necessary amendments to the status referendum law.
Carlos Romero Barceló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000) and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years. He is now a consultant involved in real estate, doing business as CRB Realty. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments on this article are welcome at caribbeanbusiness.pr. Go to the “Sign in” link on the homepage to participate. Emails also may be sent to email@example.com.