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DePosada: Puerto Rico’s ‘Nuclear Option’ On Statehood

Imagine that a majority of Quebec’s citizens, fed up with being part of Canada, voted to become the United States’ 51st state. Then, without the consent of Congress, the French-speaking province brazenly proceeded to elect U.S. Senators and a dozen U.S. Representatives and send them to Washington, D.C., to demand their seats in Congress.

[IMGCAP(1)]Imagine that the Quebeckers also insisted on speaking French and let it be known that they expected the U.S. to transform itself into an officially bilingual nation like the one that they left behind. I don’t think it would take Americans long to tell the uninvited guests to pack their bags and scram — in blunt Anglo-Saxon English!

Americans are blissfully unaware that something like that hypothetical scenario could start unfolding this fall. The main differences are that it would take place in Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island located more than a thousand miles to our south, rather than a province to our north, and the language involved would be Spanish, not French.

The rabidly pro-statehood New Progressive Party, known by its Spanish acronym, PNP, controls both the governor’s office and the Legislature in the self-governing U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Frustrated to the point of apoplexy that Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood and voted to remain a U.S. commonwealth in all three elections in which they have voted on the issue, PNP leaders have decided to exert their one-party control of Puerto Rico’s government to implement their own version of the “nuclear option.”

The PNP is steering bills through Puerto Rico’s Legislature that would require Puerto Ricans to vote on statehood again before the end of this year. This time, however, the PNP is leaving nothing to chance. To avoid the possibility that Puerto Ricans might choose to remain a commonwealth again, in Hugo Chavez fashion, they have removed that option from the ballot.

Instead voters will have only two choices: statehood or full independence. Commonwealth is not an option. As further insurance, Puerto Rico’s major opposition party, the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, is effectively barred from playing any role in the referendum.

Puerto Ricans have prospered through their long association with the U.S. Puerto Ricans have automatic U.S. citizenship and the right to live in the U.S. if they wish. Except for a small number of Puerto Rican nationalists, they would never vote for independence. So with only statehood or independence to choose from, the election is certain to generate a landslide vote for statehood.

The next move is spelled out in the legislation. After an eight-month lull there would be another election to choose U.S. Senators and six or seven U.S. Representatives. The 2008 PNP platform says Puerto Rico will use the same strategy Tennessee used to gain admission to the Union in 1796. That is to dispatch its newly elected Congressmen to Washington to demand their seats in Congress.

But the Puerto Ricans will have one weapon that the Tennesseans didn’t. As PNP leader and former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló told local newspapers, Congressional leaders “will have to support [statehood] in order to avoid being accused of bigotry against Hispanics.”

In other words, the Puerto Ricans won’t hesitate to denounce as racists anyone who resists their demand. Anyone who thinks such a public relations strategy is far-fetched should recall the battle over seating Roland Burris (D), then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) pick as the Senator from Illinois.

Why would Puerto Rican statehood leaders use such strong-arm tactics to force their way into the Union? One reason is that Puerto Rico’s government is deeply in debt and its economy is weighed down by a bloated public employment sector. Its PNP-led government is desperate. It recently had to furlough 30,000 government workers, and it hopes for a bailout from the U.S. Treasury that it could not hope to get as a commonwealth.

Language in the referendum bill’s rationale is clear: “The economic model under the unincorporated territory [e.g. Commonwealth] political system has collapsed and the government has not been able to guarantee the right to work of thousands of public employees who now find themselves in the unemployment line after being laid off.”

Fortunately, there is an honest, democratic alternative to resolve the issue of Puerto Rico’s status. Why not have Congress authorize the commonwealth to elect delegates and hold a constitutional convention that would reflect Puerto Rico’s entire political spectrum? Then the convention could debate and reach a consensus for charting the island’s future to submit to Congress.

Roberto G. DePosada is the former president of the Latino Coalition and a senior adviser to the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders.

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