On December 28th, 2011, Governor Luis Fortuño signed into law the act that will enable a referendum on the status issue on Election Day, 2012. The 2012 plebiscite will be the first consultation in which the current status, Commonwealth, does not compete with non-territorial options such as Independence and Statehood. The referendum will ask voters two questions:
1) Do you want to continue in the current territorial status? [ Yes or No]
2) Which of the following non-territorial option do you prefer. Ballots with more than one selection will not be counted: [Statehood, Independence, Free Associated State (ELA Soberano)]
What does each option represent?
Under statehood, Puerto Rico would request admission as the 51st state to the Union. It would receive approximately 6-7 House Representatives, 2 Senators and about 9 electoral votes (placing it with greater clout than 1/3 of the states in the Union). It would be the US’s first Spanish speaking state given that less than 20% of the population is fluent in English and it would be the first US State who has previously beaten the US Olympic Basketball team.
Under independence, Puerto Rico would become a sovereign republic. Citizens born after independence would not receive automatic US citizenship, but those who already had citizenship will now carry dual-citizenship. Puerto Rico would be free to engage in treaties with other countries, thus lowering the cost of many supplies it has to buy through the US. It would also be freed from federal legislation and regulation that has not taken Puerto Rico’s economic reality into consideration (GDP is half of Mississippi’s).
The “Estado Libre Asociado Soberano” (free associated state option) is slightly different from the traditional free associated status found in International Law in that the Puerto Rican model guarantees US citizenship permanently. Under the free associated state option, Puerto Rico would enter into a bilateral treaty with the US similar to the one held by the Federation of Micronesia.
Under said treaty, Puerto Rico would be independent but would have a stronger relationship with the US. Sharing defense, currency and US citizenship would be guaranteed to all Puerto Ricans born under the new status. Federal jurisdiction would be curtailed but still applicable in certain situations. This option was adopted by the PPD in their 2008 party platform and has not been removed as of yet – notwithstanding that the current PPD candidate has disavowed the option.
Local politicians immediately gave their reactions. Senator Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the Commonwealth (PPD) Party candidate for governor, blasted the referendum describing it as a joke but failing to state his party’s position regarding the referendum. That matter, Garcia Padilla stated, will be determined by the party at a later time.
His running mate, Rafael Cox-Alomar, claimed that Puerto Ricans are not interested in resolving their century-long colonial issue at the moment given more important matters such as the economy and crime on the Island.
Senator Eduardo Bhatia criticized the fact that both questions are posed on the same day, suggesting that voters will not be able to “process the decision they are making” if both questions are posed at the same time.
Luis Delgado, president of the pro-free association group ALAS, welcomed the referendum, stating that the current colonial system will finally near its end. On the statehood and independence side, both the Statehood Party (PNP) and the Independence Party (PIP) have supported the referendum, particularly because it removes the current colonial status as an option against non-territorial options. Rather, and in compliance with the White House Task Force Report, voters can vote to stay in the current status by voting “YES” on the first question. If they vote “NO”, then there is no reason to include it in the second question. The PPD has blasted this decision since it no longer affords it the benefit of pitting statehood and independence supporters against each other, thus ensuring an artificial win as it did in previous referendums.
Further, only voters living on the Island, and those eligible under absentee voting laws, will be eligible to vote. The diaspora will not be able to vote in the referendum, but they can always let their voice heard through their elected congressional representation. But what is the background leading up to this consultation?
Prior Efforts to Address the Status Issue
Puerto Rico has celebrated three plebiscites on the status issue. In 1967, voters chose between Statehood, Independence and an improved (greater autonomy) version of the current Commonwealth status. Sixty percent (60%) of voters favored the Commonwealth option. In 1993, then Governor Rosselló held another plebiscite with the same three options. Commonwealth managed a slight win with 48.6% to Statehood’s 46.3%. More importantly, it was the first time that the majority of voters voted against the Commonwealth option (50.7%). In 1998, a third plebiscite was held modeled after the failed Don Young Bill (H.R. 856 [105th], giving voters five options:
3) Free Associated State
4) Unincorporated territory
5) None of the Above
Given a high degree of voter disapproval with then Gov. Rosselló (and the fact that the Commonwealth option, as championed by the PPD, was not included) many cast a protest vote and “None of the Above” won with 50.3% of the vote.
When the PPD took over power in 2000, it began toying with the idea of a Constitutional Assembly for Status (Asamblea Constituyente de Status). Rather than placing the options up for a vote, voters would elect a group of individuals who would then negotiate between themselves, and Congress, to deliver a solution to the status issue. [Here is an excellent explanation of that mechanism by Prof. Carlos Gorrín Peralta, member of the Independence Party] This option has been rejected by the Statehood party and by some in the Commonwealth Party.
Moving Forward in 2012
Since the 1998 plebiscite, Puerto Ricans have not been consulted on the status issue. Mainland American voters need to bear into consideration that local politics are not divided into Republican and Democrat parties, but rather by political parties based on status options (Statehood, Commonwealth and Independence). Status is the issue in every election. The 2012 plebiscite will finally let a majority of voters reject the current status, one that is subject to Congress’s plenary powers under the Territorial Clause of the US Constitution, and choose a non-territorial option to then negotiate with Capitol Hill.
2012 may be the year of the recalls in some parts of the United States, but if all goes well, it could be the beginning of the end for the colonial status of Puerto Rico.