Task Force Holds Firm on Options for Puerto Rico

Posted January 4, 2008 at 6:19pm

It’s a never-ending argument: the question of whether Puerto Rico can be something other than a territory, such as a state, independent nation, or even something else.

The question has become a centerpiece for the politics of the island, fueling campaigns and making its way to Congress dozens of times. Usually it’s a local argument in Puerto Rico, and one that gets muddled on its way to the Hill. It’s hard to even define the island as a territory since the island’s politicians themselves have yet to reach agreement on that term.

But at the end of December, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status tried once again to simplify the issue. For the second time in as many years, it released a report that gives Puerto Rico only three options: stay a territory, become a state or work toward independence. It argues that a path supported by the island’s governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, is unconstitutional; in Acevedo’s vision, Puerto Rico would become a “new commonwealth” that enjoys political autonomy but also benefits from some U.S. perks (such as federal funding).

With the task force unflinching in its view, Acevedo will go to the United Nations in June to try to garner support for his commonwealth plan.

“Someone here is being fooled,” said Eduardo Bhatia Gautier, Acevedo’s representative in Washington, D.C. “This report is more a political favor or a political decision or a political wish list rather than a legally, carefully crafted document.”

The report argues that Congress should mandate a two-step vote in Puerto Rico to determine the will of its residents. The first vote would offer two choices: current territory status or a new nonterritorial status. If a majority of voters chose the latter, a second vote would give two more choices: one supporting statehood and another supporting independence.

The task force’s continued support of this method bodes well for Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R). The two sponsored a bill last year for such a vote. That bill, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, was heavily amended and unanimously passed by the House Natural Resources Committee in the fall. As amended, only the first vote remains, with the instructions to later decide whether to have a second vote or Acevedo’s preferred constitutional convention.

“I think the task force says what it has to say. It says you are a colony and your options are to join the family or go toward independence,” Serrano said, later adding: “As a Puerto Rican, I don’t think that my birthplace should be a colony of the United States, and as an American Congressman, I don’t think my country should have colonies.”

But Acevedo denies that Puerto Rico is a colony at all. At issue is a 1953 U.N. resolution that removed the island from a list of non-self-governing territories whose status was reported every year to the organization. Acevedo argues that this meant the end of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory and the beginning of its life as a “commonwealth.” Now, Acevedo wants the UN to step in and support this view.

“The governor of Puerto Rico is going to have no recourse but to go to the United Nations and basically ask the United Nations to look into this and say you should request a formal statement from the United States,” Bhatia said.

In reality, federal officials walked the line in 1953, avoiding the title of territory but never taking Puerto Rico out of its territorial status, said Jeffrey Farrow, a co-chairman of former President Bill Clinton’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico. The task force also tackled this issue for the first time in its December report, citing an official U.S. report to the U.N. that gave Puerto Rico “the freedom to conduct its own internal government subject only to compliance with federal law and the U.S. Constitution.”

The task force’s report also argues that Acevedo’s favored proposal for a “new commonwealth” is unconstitutional, partially because it would create an agreement between Congress and Puerto Rico. Not only is such a status not recognized by the Constitution, the report argues, but one Congress also cannot bind later Congresses into such an agreement. Furthermore, Farrow said, such a plan would be impossible to pass through Congress because it asks for more freedoms and benefits than any state or independent nation.

“This is a totally ridiculous proposal that the federal government has rejected,” he said.

Bhatia argues that the task force is limited in its view of such relationships, citing such associations at the European Union. And as long as Acevedo and other commonwealth supporters disagree with those arguing for statehood or independence, Serrano’s bill lacks the united support of Puerto Rico.

“All my bill says now is ‘Mr. and Mrs. Puerto Rico, are you happy as you are or do you want to change?’” Serrano said. “What’s wrong with that? Why is that a bad bill now?”