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domingo, 21 de febrero de 2010

Status: A history of plebiscites, lack of action by D.C.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Puerto Rico Daily Sun Robert Friedman WASHINGTON Three times Puerto Ricans have voted on their status choices, with an eye toward Washington to implement the results. Three times Washington contemplated the results, and then did little or nothing about them. Critics say the significant lack of congressional action on the local status votes is evidence that Washington will not pay serious attention unless a federally sanctioned plebiscite is held. Others say that the voters have either sent an unclear signal on status or have supported changes that Congress cannot or will not provide because of their dubious constitutionality. The first local status referendum was held in 1967. The plebiscite was proposed by a U.S.-Puerto Rico Status Commission that, after years of study, reported that commonwealth, statehood or independence were all viable options. Commonwealth got 60 percent of the vote, statehood 39 percent and independence, whose followers boycotted the plebiscite, garnered 1 percent. While the Statehood Republican Party, under the reign of Miguel García Méndez also told its followers to ignore the vote, two of the party’s mavericks, future Govs. Luis A. Ferré and Carlos Romero Barceló rallied their troops to the polls. Their revolt was the beginning of the New Progressive Party. In 1968, Ferré was elected governor and no effort was made in Washington to follow through with the plebiscite results. Then, in 1972, came the Compact of Permanent Union, the brainchild of Rafael Hernández Colón, which attempted to codify the more autonomous commonwealth that the majority approved in the 1967 vote. Hernández Colón, when he became governor in 1973, proposed the compact to Washington. Washington wanted no part of what it saw as move to wrest national government powers from it. A House committee voted down a bid for a compact of permanent union between the island and the U.S. In 1976, then-San Juan Mayor Romero Barceló was elected to La Fortaleza, promising to let status rest and concentrate on the local economy. Status more or less stayed rested until Hernández Colón was reelected in 1988. In 1989, a rare three-party proposal was made to Washington for a congressionally sanctioned three-way plebiscite. President George H.W. Bush was even behind the plan, and the House approved legislation for the vote. However, the Senate, after shooting down a myriad of commonwealth proposals for, among other things, island control over immigration, the airwaves, pollution standards, minimum wages, federal laws, etc. — did not approve its own version of the bill, and status came to a halt in the nation’s capital again. Commonwealth wins again Then, in 1993, a second island-sanctioned status plebiscite was held. Commonwealth also won that vote, by a plurality, 48 percent to 46 percent for statehood. President Clinton, who had promised before the vote to implement the winning option, said, among other things, that he couldn’t act on a plurality, as opposed to a majority, victory. The Clinton administration also found the “commonwealth” definition questionable. It called for restoration and continuation of the Section 936 tax plan, which Clinton was starting to phase out. It also called for trade protection for Puerto Rico that would have gone against the administration’s plans for the North American Free Trade Agreement. It called for Puerto Rico’s right to argue against federal laws applying to the island, another no-no for Washington. Clinton proposed another plebiscite, this one sanctioned through federal legislation with status definitions that the federal government found acceptable. The so-called Young bill, to sanction such a vote, got a one-vote victory in the House in 1998. The legislation, once again, got nowhere in the Senate. In the same year, Puerto Rico held its third status referendum. Statehood drew 48 percent, but the “none of the above” choice got a majority 50.1 percent of the votes. The pro-commonwealth forces, unhappy with the Young bill definition of that status, urged its followers to vote none of the above. Commonwealth supporters saw the results as a victory for their cause, while statehooders were thought to have suffered a setback. The Clinton administration’s response was again for federal status legislation, with options proposed by the Puerto Rico parties as agreed to by the federal government. Almost all was quiet on the status front during the eight years of Popular Democratic Party Govs. Sila Calderón and Anibal Acevedo Vilá. Still, in 2006, and again in 2007, then-Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño, a member of the pro-statehood NPP, tried again for a federally sanctioned status vote. Despite House committee approval, the bill went nowhere. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to bring it to the floor, pointing to objections from some of the “stakeholders” — i.e. stateside Puerto Rican Reps. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., and Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., both influential in Hispanic affairs among Democrats. The rest is recent history. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi’s two-pronged status bill — in which voters first decide whether to change the current Puerto Rico-U.S. relationship, then, if they vote for a change, choose among statehood, independence and a sovereign free association — is once again awaiting a House floor vote. Then a possible Senate vote. Judging from the congressional past, a fourth Puerto Rico-sponsored status contest could be the next concrete move on the island’s political future. ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Congress may finally act on status, observers say For the first time, Congress would act on the results of the next island-held status plebiscite — providing there was a clear winner and the winning option mandated constitutionally viable changes in the U.S.-Puerto Rico political relationship. That is the latest assessment of veterans of the status wars here. Once again, however, they believe that Congress will pay attention to a victory by the commonwealth status only if it means no change in the current relationship or a free association in which U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed to the citizens of a sovereign Puerto Rico. The question arises once again as chances appear dim that both the House and the Senate will approve the current status legislation introduced by Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, and the island Legislature gets ready to support a fourth local status vote. Although requested to do so, Congress did not act on plebiscites held in 1967, 1993 and 1998. But this time around, observers believe Congress could be ready to act on the results, if they are unequivocal, admittedly not an easy task to accomplish in the island’s seemingly never-ending political identity crisis. Still, “If Puerto Ricans expressed a clear desire for a changed, viable status, I feel Congress would agree,” even if Congress did not mandate the vote, said Allen Stayman, senior staffer on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over island affairs in the upper chamber. Stayman, who has been involved for decades in territorial matters, including those of Puerto Rico, both in Congress and at the Interior Department, put it this way: “The commonwealth supporters could get what they have now or move to something else. It’s a four-way choice [for voters]: statehood, independence, free association or the current commonwealth.” He made it a point to say that he was “speaking personally,” and not for his boss, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. But others have expressed similar opinions. Jeffrey Farrow, another D.C. status vet and a former aide to President Clinton on Puerto Rico issues, believes that “Congress will pay a lot of attention to local [plebiscite] results.” Farrow, who now has a consulting contract with the Fortuño administration, said: “What is most important to Congress is that the majority vote for something they [Congress] could implement.” But, he added, “Congress won’t do what it can’t do constitutionally. Look at it from the perspective of Congress. When the commonwealth wants international trade rights, to determine what federal laws apply to the island and control over the federal courts, those are things Congress just won’t and can’t do because, theoretically, they would be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.” Roberto Prats, a PDP official who ran unsuccessfully for the resident commissioner post in 2004, offered a dissenting view, doubting that Congress would act on a local status vote. “Local initiatives without congressional involvement is not the way to trigger Congress to act” on status, said Prats, who heads the island Democratic Party and is a member of the Democratic National Committee. Another island plebiscite, minus a congressional mandate, “will have the same effect as a public opinion poll,” he said. Observers believe that U.S. citizenship lies at the heart of why such Popular Democratic Party leaders as PDP President Héctor Ferrer, former Gov. Aníbal Acevelo Vilá and possible gubernatorial candidate José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral will not hook up with those who want to see commonwealth morph into a form of free association. These leaders are aware, the observers say, that if they were to support a relationship that puts that citizenship in doubt, voters would no longer support the party at the polls.