Puerto Rico is planning a seventh referendum on political status for November 2024. The president of the “commonwealth” party in Puerto Rico has already announced that a boycott “would be the most obvious choice” of response to the call for a new plebiscite. Obviously, nobody calls a boycott on a vote they can win, but “commonwealth” won’t be on the ballot, so the “commonwealth” party doesn’t have a path to win. They have previously demanded to include “commonwealth” as one of the options on the ballot, but the upcoming referendum, will be based on the Puerto Rico Status Act, currently being considered in the U.S. Congress. That bill includes only non-territorial options.

Why is the “commonwealth” not on the ballot?

Commonwealth in theory

Governor Peierluisi has explained in the past that “commonwealth” doesn’t belong on the ballot because it doesn’t exist.  The idea of the “commonwealth” or “enhanced commonwealth: is that Puerto Rico can negotiate s special, unique status with the United States. This has been attempted many times since 1952, when Puerto Rico gained the name “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

Traditionally, the “commonwealth” party has said that a commonwealth status would mean that Puerto Rico would not have to be subject to federal laws unless it chose to accept those laws. Puerto Rico would be financially supported by the United States and would have guaranteed U.S. citizenship by birthright, but could also negotiate treaties with other nations as if it were an independent country. Instead of being “a mere territory,” a commonwealth would have sovereignty without any commitments to the United States, and could count on free trade and travel with the United States. This traditional fantasy also stipulates that the United States and Puerto Rico would have to agree, and get the permission of the voters of Puerto Rico, in order to make any changes in the deal.

Beer & Barbecue Option

The problem with this idea is that it is unconstitutional. That is, it is not possible to have this arrangement under the U.S. Constitution. All three branches of the U.S. federal government have said that they would not accept this status option, and indeed, that they cannot do so under the law.

The “commonwealth” party typically says that it can be done, with the “political will.” Rep. Nydia Vazquez of New York said, “We hold the pen” — in other words, as a Member of Congress, she figures she can make any law she wants, including a law allowing the fantasy “commonwealth” status.

However, even if Rep. Velazquez were able to get the current Congress to change the terms of Puerto Rico’s current relationship with the United States, the next Congress could change it again. Puerto Rico originally received SNAP benefits, but Congress changed that. Puerto Rico used to be able to declare bankruptcy in the same way as states, but Congress changed that. The Resident Commissioner currently has a symbolic vote in the House (if her vote changes the outcome, it is not counted), but in the past Congress has not allowed that.

Congress Gives and Takes Away

While the definition of “commonwealth” propped by the “commonwealth” party has changed over time, they have never come up with a plan which the federal government would or could agree to. A vote for “commonwealth” on the plebiscite ballot would only mean that Puerto Rico could continue to try to persuade the federal government to go along with these ideas in the future.

Commonwealth in reality

Puerto Rico is actually an unincorporated territory of the United States. The Island is subject to all federal laws, but does not have the full protection of the U.S. Constitution. Congress has the right to make all the rules and regulations and can change the rules and regulations made by a previous Congress at any time. Congress could rescind the citizenship of everyone born in Puerto Rico at any time. This is the reality.

As a territory, Puerto Rico is covered by the Territory Clause. This is Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution:

“The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

A vote for commonwealth is a vote to remain a territory, under the plenary power of Congress.

This possibility has been rejected already in previous plebiscites.  It would be possible to include “current territory status” on the ballot, but it would not resolve Puerto Rico’s status. It would not end the colonial relationship. It would just keep Puerto Rico in its current political limbo.

It is dishonest to continue to present the option of “enhanced commonwealth” to voters when it has been clearly shown that such a status is impossible under the Constitution. The non-territorial options of statehood and nationhood are the correct choices for the ballot.



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