The Special Meaning of President’s Day in Puerto Rico

It’s President’s Day across the United States, including Puerto Rico, a day to remember great heroes of democracy and human rights like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  But in Puerto Rico the celebration of President’s Day has a special meaning.

For over 500 years Puerto Rico has been a colony. It was occupied by Spain first, and has belonged to the United States since 1898. It is the oldest colony in the world.  In two years our nation will celebrate a full century of U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico.  Even though the patriotic citizens of Puerto Rico are patient, aspirations for resolution of the territory’s political status have been growing stronger for decades.

The difference between Puerto Rico on President’s Day in 2015 and most of its history under Spanish as well as U.S. rule is that the last several U.S. Presidents have acted competently and exercised their constitutional powers effectively to make possible full and final decolonization of Puerto Rico based on consent of the governed and America’s commitment to full democracy for all citizens.

Millions of U.S. citizens look to our President as the Chief Executive of a co-equal branch of our national government who has acted to define Puerto Rico’s political status options truthfully and in a legally valid manner.  For most citizens in Puerto Rico, the willingness of Presidents in the modern era to be forthright about freedom and democracy for Puerto Rico reflects a special bond with the President as the Commander in Chief tens of thousands of citizens from Puerto Rico have served in every war for a century.

We know that Congress has the express power to define territorial status, and that Congress has been the steward of our well-being and development.  But we also know that Congress has defaulted on the promise of government by consent leading to equal rights and duties of citizenship, and the Federal Courts have created more ambiguity than clarity in the fundamental constitutional rights of citizenship in the territory.

Even after U.S. citizenship was granted for Puerto Rico in 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress have not extended the U.S. Constitution to Puerto Rico, as our nation historically has done for every other territory with a U.S. citizen population.  In contrast, since Puerto Rico adopted a constitution in 1952, every U.S. President has supported the right of Puerto Rico to end limited self-government under the current territorial status in favor of full democracy through statehood or nationhood.

Recognizing that Congress and the Federal Courts had deviated from sound historical territorial policy under the Constitution, President Reagan was the first U.S. President to advocate statehood for Puerto Rico.  Reagan believed the current system of less than fully democratic government called “commonwealth” left millions of U.S. citizens in the territory in a “historically unnatural” status, and that statehood was the political status solution most consistent with U.S. national interests.

In 1989, during his first address to Congress, President Bush told the nation he also favored statehood, and periodic votes until the present temporary territory status and “commonwealth” system of territorial government ended in favor of statehood or nationhood.  Since then President Clinton established and both of his successors, President Bush and Obama, have appointed the members of The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.  Historic reports by the White House that have been prepared by the PTPRS have done more to define the legal, political, historical and constitutional roadmap to status resolution than any act or Congress or ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a result long standing ambiguities and misrepresentations were dispelled, making it possible for a plebiscite on legally valid status options to be held in Puerto Rico on November 6th, 2012.  54 percent of the respondents voted against Puerto Rico continuing in its present form of territorial status (Commonwealth), and 61 percent preferred moving towards statehood rather than independence or a sovereign free associated state. So the will of the people of Puerto Rico is known.

The results of the 2012 vote are incontrovertible and can not be disputed legitimately, though some have tried and failed to do so.  As the federal government has done in the case of dozens of territories that became states, to confirm the results of the vote conducted under local law, in April 2013, the Obama administration announced that it would spend $2.5 million through the Justice Department and the Puerto Rico Elections Commission to resolve the status by consulting voters on options that are compatible with the Constitution, laws, and public policy of the United States. Because the votes would be under federal auspices, it would be very difficult indeed to argue with the results.

Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, has also introduced a bill into Congress which provides for a federally-sponsored vote in Puerto Rico on the admission of Puerto Rico into the Union as a State and — if a majority of voters confirm Puerto Rico’s desire for statehood — to describe the steps that the President and Congress will take to enable the admission of Puerto Rico as a State of the Union.

The power to grant statehood, lies with Congress.  But 200,000 citizens from Puerto Rico have served in the armed forces, and proportional to its population we have suffered more casualties than any state in the union, but so far that has not moved Congress to create a federal policy and legal mechanism to resolve the status question.

If ever there was a cause for Congress to rally behind, it should be to distribute political rights to nearly 3.7 million American citizens who are denied the opportunity to participate in the political body that enacts the supreme law they must follow.  Until that happens, the 2012 vote suggests clearly that most citizens in Puerto Rico will hope the President will continue taking the lead in seeking Congressional action.

Ultimately all three branches of the Federal Government must act together to redeem the promise of the Constitution and what it means to all citizens, including those  in Puerto Rico.  Until then, on President’s Day we will remember the special meaning of the holiday for Puerto Rico, because every President since Eisenhower has upheld the Constitution for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico to the full extent possible, while Congress and the Courts have relied on the flawed doctrine that the Constitution does not even apply of its own force.

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