2017 Plebiscite Delayed?

Puerto Rico Senate President Thoma Rivera Schatz introduced a bill into the Senate earlier this month to schedule the first federally-sponsored status vote in Puerto Rico’s history. The funding for this vote was set aside in 2014, and the new bill scheduled the vote for May 28, 2017. Consideration of the bill was delayed.

Public hearings on the bill have already been held, and just one issue came up which required a possible change: some asked to hold the vote in June rather than in May.

So why the delay? It’s the same reason the vote was delayed in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The “commonwealth” party wants a “commonwealth” option on the ballot. Problem is, the United States said in the law funding the vote that every option on the ballot had to be possible under the U.S. Constitution.

Rivera Schatz proposed a vote between statehood and independence, both options which the U.S. can accept. Earlier proposals for the vote suggested an up or down vote on statehood, also possible under the U.S. Constitution. The “commonwealth” party rejects these simple, legal options. They want to include another choice. Former governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla argued unsuccessfully for this in hearings in Washington several years ago, trying to explain “enhanced commonwealth” to U.S. legislators. In 2014, the “commonwealth” party couldn’t agree on a definition of “commonwealth” and abandoned the effort before they could reach an agreement.

Keeping the commonwealth on the ballot would be simple if we were honest. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. The Island could continue as an unincorporated territory indefinitely. 54% of voters in Puerto Rico said that they did not want to continue as a territory in 2012. But it would not be unconstitutional to put “Remain a territory of the United States” on the ballot.

This is not what the “commonwealth” party wants. Some of their own leaders expressed frustration over the fact that no “commonwealth” option was brought up in the open discussions of the bill. Others echoed the claim that “commonwealth” supporters would be left out if this option, which the United States has already rejected many times, were not on the ballot. It does not make sense to put an impossible option on the ballot, and in this case, it cannot legally be done. The U.S. Department of Justice must approve all options, and they have already said that they will not consider “enhanced commonwealth.”

In fact, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) made this point very clear in a Senate hearing on the subject:

The “New Commonwealth” option continues to be advocated as a viable option by some. It is not. Persistence in supporting this option after it has been rejected as inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution by the U.S. Justice Department, by the bipartisan leadership of this committee, by the House, and by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, undermines resolution of Puerto Rico’s status question.

The same thing — “This is not a viable option” — was said in Washington in 1993, and the referendum then resulted in no action. At least this time Puerto Rico will not face the disappointment of choosing a status and then being reminded that they chose something imaginary.

Will the “commonwealth” party be able to delay the vote while they struggle to come up with some new definition of “commonwealth” which will in all likelihood be refused again by the Department of Justice? Will the people of Puerto Rico have to continue in the current unjust territorial relationship while the “commonwealth” party sends multiple definitions to the DOJ and has them all sent back as “not a viable option”?

We often see claims that statehood for Puerto Rico is impossible. This is a ridiculous claim. 32 territories have become States of the Union already, and Puerto Rico is as valuable and as well prepared as any. “New Commonwealth” or “enhanced commonwealth” or “evolved commonwealth” — these options are indeed impossible. The U.S. government — and three branches — has said so many times.

It is time to give up the impossible dream and choose the best realistic option: statehood. If you live in Puerto Rico, make sure that your legislators do not delay the end of Puerto Rico’s colonial status by clinging to the hopeless myth of the commonwealth.

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