A Government of seven Presidents
By Enrique Vázquez Quintana, MD
In 1889, encouraged by a group of Harvard intellectuals, the US Supreme Court coined the concept of “non-incorporated territory” – euphemism for “colony,” paving the way for the famous Insular Cases: 23 judicial controversies regarding the rights of territories under the US flag settled by the Supreme Court between 1899 and 1922. In 1917, Congress extended American citizenship to those born in Puerto Rico; however, in our country, the flag is raised but the Constitution does not “follow the flag.” We are second-class citizens mostly as a consequence of a geographic schizophrenia. Emigres to the continental US enjoy full citizenship, including the right to vote for the President. US embassies in every corner of the world are considered American territory where the US Constitution applies. Wherever the US flag waves, the Constitution follows the flag; except, that is, in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico was allowed a proper constitution in 1952, although this never altered our colonial status. The United Nations went to any lengths to certify that Puerto Rico was not a colony and exempted the colonizer from submitting an annual report to the organism on matters related to Puerto Rico. The great lie officially survived until the courts ruled – in Sanchez Valle v Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico – that Puerto Rico was a colony of the United States, that it had no sovereignty, and that it would have to transition to an incorporated territory in order to opt for statehood. The case shone light on the fact that our Constitution solely addresses the islands’ internal affairs. Since 1952 we have lived in a bubble – a lie.
The Union, each of the 50 states, and the Native American tribes all enjoy the right to self-government. Native Americans occupied what was to become US territory before the arrival in Cape Cod, Massachusetts of the puritan English pilgrims aboard the Mayflower on November 9, 1620. For this reason, the US recognizes the authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the US borders. Respect for the original inhabitants eventually prevailed. When American soldiers arrived on July 25 of 1898, Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony. In our case, it became a matter of switching masters: we instantly became a colony of the United States, which we remain to this day.
Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis – indebted by $76 billion – prompted Congress to pass the PROMESA Act (The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act) and to designate an Oversight Board with 7 members, 4 continentals and 3 Puerto Ricans. Congressional authority over Puerto Rico has been transferred to the Board, but the organism imposed by Congress has not strayed from the usual modus operandi of Congress in matters of Puerto Rico. In the midst of this fragile economic and political situation the islands were thrashed by Hurricane Maria on September 20 of this year.
The saying loosely goes that every difficulty bears a blessing in disguise (or every cloud has a silver lining). Politicians and pundits mostly agree that our economic crisis is a consequence of the colonial status of Puerto Rico. I contend that Puerto Rico must take advantage of this historic crossroads to solve the country’s twofold problem: fiscal crisis and political status. For a process that would take a minimum of twelve years, I propose that we adopt the Government of Seven, morphing the existing Oversight Board into a new entity that would govern Puerto Rico, mirroring the Swiss blueprint of government by 7 presidents. The first President of the Government would be selected among themselves as well as the successive presidents. The seventh president would eventually be the newest member replacing the first stateside member of the board.
The process would begin by requesting Congress to designate a negotiating committee of 13 members – 6 stateside and 7 Puerto Ricans – plus a UN observer. The committee would be entrusted with choosing the best political status for Puerto Rico. My personal belief is that statehood would be unacceptable to the US members, leaving independence and free association as the remaining options. The US segment of the committee would disregard statehood for the political power that 6 to 7 congressmen/women and 2 senators would bestow on Puerto Rico – a number that exceeds 23 states in legislative representation. For a Hispanic, non-Anglo-Saxon territory to wield such influence is uphill at best: the mere genetic makeup of the population would redefine the landscape of Congress and the idea would have few, if any, takers. As to independence, not even considering that Puerto Ricans do not settle easily for extremes, we are American citizens; therefore, Congress cannot simply declare independence for Puerto Rico. If we are tempted to draw analogies, the case with Singapore (1971) and Malta (1972) is different: both were granted independence unilaterally by the UK since their inhabitants were not British citizens. So, independence, not an option. The sole surviving status would be free association.
Free Association status for Puerto Rico would be deemed the viable, dignified and long-term economically neutral option for the US. Once this truth is recognized, the negotiating committee would ask Congress to eliminate laws governing interstate commerce and cabotage and to allow PR to buy from and enter into trade agreements with other countries to our advantage. Additionally, the committee would request that prospective laws passed by Congress apply to Puerto Rico only with the approval of the Government of 7. This idea must be set in motion before the 2020 elections. From 2020 forward, each successive elected president would replace the three US governing members. The chair would rotate annually among the 7 members based on seniority. Following the Swiss model, the 7 governing members would be “chiefs among equals.”
In 2020, we would initiate negotiations toward a Treaty of Free Association with the US and would adopt the Oversight Board imposed by Congress as the government of 7 presidents in charge of transitioning Puerto Rico into the new status. This would come about once the FCB certifies that Puerto Rico has achieved a decent credit rating in the markets and as soon as government expenses no longer exceed its income. The Free Association Treaty would last 20 years, the time it would take to convince the deniers that we are capable of self-government with no outside intervention. If Switzerland has been successful at it, why can’t we? This would solve the problem of Puerto Rico for a Congress that has no idea how to deal with a colony that seems good enough for exploitation and little more.
Free Association treaties have been proven feasible in other countries, including the US. We can cite several such agreements with the US: The Federated States of Micronesia (1986), The Republic of the Marshall Islands (1986), and the Republic of Palau (1994). The European Union is currently the biggest existing free association agreement, whereby 26 nations converge to delegate a number of functions to a central government while retaining a portion of decisional power to govern their own independent nations, all of which have different customs, traditions, cultures and languages.
It is inconceivable, irrational and absurd that the supposed beacon of democracy, the most democratic of countries, may have conceived a non-territorial status and retained Puerto Rico as a colony devoid of rights as basic as the vote for congress and president, both of whom have absolute power over our country. Colonialism is as retrograde as is slavery, as is denying women the right to vote, and as is failing to recognize the most basic rights of the LGBTTQ community. All of the above shortcomings of the American system contradict its purported sense of justice and equality for each of its American citizens, including those living in Puerto Rico.
A Government of 7 for a Free Nation Associated with the United States of America offers stability and continuity in public administration, curbs fiscal waste and corruption in government, and would allow Puerto Rico the margin to govern and open new paths for economic and social development for this proud and deserving land.