The Department of Justice has issued a statement saying that “The Department has not reviewed or approved the current ballot language and any suggestions to the contrary are incorrect”, according to El Nuevo Día.
The Puerto Rico government intends to go ahead with the vote anyway. The statement still adds a layer of uncertainty to Puerto Rico’s future. In an effort to get a clearer view of what the future may hold under each of the ballot options, we’re looking to the past.
A report from the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in 1992 looked at the details of the progress toward a plebiscite which had been planned for 1991. This didn’t happen; the referendum was held in 1993. Among other things, the report details the status definitions prepared by the three main political parties. Each party had its own ideas about how the political status they favored should look if it won.
Here’s what the “commonwealth” party wanted:
- “Broader self-government in local matters”
- Federal policies that work toward social and economic development in Puerto Rico
- “Safeguards” for the identity and culture of the Puerto Rican people
- A mechanism that would allow Puerto Rico to make agreements with countries other than the U.S. — there is no such mechanism, since Puerto Rico can make agreements only if Congress allows it.
- Equity in federal programs
It’s hard to say what “Broader self-government in local matters” means, but the Supreme Court says that all Puerto Rico’s local power comes from Congress. Puerto Rico also still has no mechanism allowing deals with foreign powers; the U.S. can stop any deal that Puerto Rico tries to make. And that request about federal policies is so vague that it’s impossible to agree on whether the U.S. has done this or not.
Puerto Rico doesn’t have equity in federal programs. The new White House budget plans to spend just .66% of the annual expenditures on Puerto Rico, much less than is being spent in any state with a similar population size. Congress is allowed to spend less in Puerto Rico, and does.
As for “safeguards” for Puerto Rican culture, we don’t seem to need that. In the States and on the Island, Puerto Ricans continue to maintain and celebrate the unique culture of Puerto Rico.
Regardless of the specifics, we can see that Puerto Rico, as a territory, has not been successful in achieving these goals.
Here’s what the independence party wanted:
- Withdrawal of the U.S. military from Puerto Rico
- Dual citizenship (Puerto Rico and U.S.) for 25 years
- Open access to U.S. markets for Puerto Rico for 20 years
- Extension of Section 936 for 25 years
- A grant equivalent to all federal support which would be received by Puerto Rico for 25 years
- Full sovereignty as an independent nation
Section 936 is gone, but the other items could in theory be negotiated with the U.S. government. Full sovereignty is a given, but the other items would depend on the agreements made. Failure to gain this kind of deal would not allow Puerto Rico to go back to being a territory. Puerto Rico would have to commit to becoming independent and then attempt to negotiate these elements.
It’s important that voters understand this. No matter what proponents of independence/free association say they want from the U.S. government, the vote doesn’t guarantee that they will get it. People voting for independence are voting only for item #6. They may be hoping for dual citizenship and an open market, but items #1-5 are just hopes. Puerto Rico cannot compel the U.S. to agree to any of these things.
Here’s what the statehood party wanted:
- Spanish and English as official languages
- Equity in federal programs
- Federal income tax exemption for 25 years
- Extension of Section 936
- The right to vote for President
- Full representation in Congress
Spanish and English are already the official languages of Puerto Rico, and the United States does not have an official language. Every state can choose whether to have one or more official languages. As a state, Puerto Rico would be entitled to equity in federal programs, the right to vote for president, and full representation in Congress. States have rights. These rights are laid out in the U.SD. Constitution and they do not need to be negotiated.
Federal tax exemption for 25 years? Most of Puerto Rico’s taxpayers will not have to pay any federal income taxes; many will be entitled to tax credits that will provide them with cash for their families.
Section 936 is gone. That part of the tax code turned out not to depend on status.
Maintaining the current territorial status won’t work out the way its supporters want it to. It hasn’t done so in the near quarter of a century since the 1993 ballot. It hasn’t in the five years since the 2012 ballot, which showed a majority for statehood.
Independence got less than 6% of the vote in 2012, and that was the best it has ever done. There is simply no reason to think that the people of Puerto Rico want independence. If Puerto Rico votes for this option, though, it will not begin with the things the independence party hopes for.
Statehood guarantees the rights of a state, and it guarantees that the people of Puerto Rico will have the rights of U.S. citizens who live in states. There is no uncertainty about what statehood will mean. That hasn’t changed, either.