Status is still elephant in the room

by Mar 24, 2016Opinion0 comments

By Howard Hills, PR51st

In negotiations on measures that will constitute a federal response to Puerto Rico’s fiscal meltdown, U.S. Senate and House committee leaders and staff insist the territory’s political status is “virtually irrelevant” to the task at hand.  Meanwhile elected leaders and government financial advisers from the territory insist federal measures to restore stability in the local economy must respect the political dignity of Puerto Rico’s citizens and the territorial government.

Both Congress and Puerto Rico’s leaders are working hard to produce effective short term measures to jump start recovery from the financial crisis.  Of course, long term solutions may include transition from unsustainable public sector ownership of major economic enterprises to private sector ownership, impacting the political as well as fiscal balance that exists in the current organic structure of federal-territorial relations.

That will affect progress on political status outcomes for Puerto Rico as the last large and populous U.S. territory within the U.S. system of constitutional federalism.  Even in the short term, however, everyone knows that ultimately the crisis afflicting the island’s economic order is a subset of the territory’s larger and enduring political status dilemma.

Even those in denial admit in moments of candor that the 78% voter turnout for the 2012 referendum in which 54% voted to end the current status and 61% voted for statehood was a game changer.   Anti-statehood leaders of the status-quo party lamely touted blank ballots on the a second question choice between statehood versus nationhood, but even with blank ballots on that question more voters cast ballot for statehood than those who voted for the current status in and up or down option on the first ballot question.

Washington was not ready to recognize the full meaning of the 2012 vote for statehood, at least not officially.  Still, the real barometer and measure of Congressional thinking about the 2012 vote is the 2014 bipartisan vote that had White House support for legislation authorizing and funding a federally sponsored referendum to confirm the results of that 2012 vote for statehood.  That meant Washington recognized it needed to know if the 2012 vote was for real, because that would mean decades of platitudes about respecting the will of the people for change must come to an end.

Then came the Puerto Rico financial crash, and suddenly there was a bipartisan chorus in Congress expressing resignation that was really thinly veiled relief that the status issue was dead until the economic picture turned around.  Yet, despite a tacit agreement not to talk about status, even those in Congress adamant that the fiscal crisis must be addressed in 2016 without linkage to status are keenly aware of the scenario that is likely to unfold for Puerto Rico in 2017 and beyond.

The current Governor of Puerto Rico blocked the referendum authorized by Congress in 2014.  If a pro-statehood government is elected in 2016, some version of the scenario that played out in 32 territories that became states of the union will ensue for Puerto Rico.

It will begin with the federally sponsored referendum, which could be an up or down vote on statehood, or include a choice of nationhood.  If majority support for statehood is confirmed Congress will be forced to follow historical precedent and define specific terms for admission to the union.   If it so chooses, Congress can also prescribe the terms for continuation of the status quo or transition to sovereign independent nationhood.

Regardless of what has come of federal measures to address the fiscal crisis, what those in Washington who understand history know is that a federally recognized vote for statehood will instigate the same struggle between supporters and opponents of admission that took place in each of the thirty-two territories that became states.  That history includes admission to the union for territories political and economic circumstances that make Puerto Rico’s current fiscal crisis seem utterly benign.

Indeed, history teaches us that even at a time when all the existing states were controlled by English speaking Protestants, Louisiana was inhabited by Spanish and French speaking Catholics.  Yet, that new state was admitted to the union in the midst of the War of 1812.  Imagine, as well, adding to the admission debate a question so vexatious as whether the new state would be free or slave, with a powerful militant opposition poised to strike either way.

Of course, even those focused on short term fiscal fixes know that investment in Puerto Rico will break records when statehood becomes a realistic prospect.  Thus, even if the next Governor of Puerto Rico is from the status-quo party, the pressure to hold a federally sponsored vote in 2017 will mount and make a referendum obligatory.  Since any option on the ballot must be certified by the U.S. Attorney General, even if the current status is on the ballot a statehood majority is a realistic expectation.

In anticipation of that scenario, the newly published book “Citizens Without A State” presents case studies distilling the essential question driving support and opposition to statehood for thirty-two territories that became states.  This study, with a foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, examines the history of Puerto Rico’s political status under U.S. rule.  The book also challenges the orthodoxy of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that enabled Congress to abdicate its duty to address the status issue, before being forced to do so by the current crisis, which is driving tens of thousands from Puerto Rico to vote for statehood by moving to a state each year.

Denial that status is and will continue to be the elephant in the room until the question is resolved will soon be impossible, as short terms fiscal fixes make the need for a status solution undeniable.   Be prepared, get your copy of “Citizens Without A State” now.

Print book or pdf download available here. Kindle version available at Amazon.

For a recent report on public reaction in the states to “Citizens Without A State” click here.