Puerto Rico’s Statehood Dilemma Looms Large in 2012

Puerto Rico’s Statehood Dilemma Looms Large in 2012


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.

Politicians React

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:

1) Statehood
2) Independence
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.



  1. Puerto Rico's Per Capita Income is half of Mississippi's; its GDP is larger than 15 states! Also, the ELA Soberano option is a Spanish wording for Free Association, and does NOT guarantee American citizenship; it is independence with a bilateral treaty, but independence nonetheless.

    Local "Commonwealth" politicians claim there are bigger issues in the island, but they fail to say that those "bigger issues" (i.e. crime, poverty, low worker participation, a stagnant economy) are ALL direct results of the 114-year-old status problem.

    There is something different about this new plebiscite: Puerto Ricans can no longer opt to remain a territorial "Commonwealth." The "Commonwealth" option is not permanent and was never meant to be. However, the "Commonwealth" PPD party refuses to accept that fact. They want to continue territorialism, but its own people in the party are split. Some want territorialism and others want independence in free association. They don't know what to advocate for as a party. Statehooders know what they want; so do Independentistas!

    This time is different from 1967, 1993, and 1998 because the "Commonwealth" option is being treated as different from the others–BECAUSE IT IS!

  2. Well said Javier! And you are right on the ELA Soberano issue. It is independence, however, the PPD in 2008 defended that status with permanent citizenship. You and I both know that is impossible, but I simply include it in the manner that the PPD championed it then (and curiously, back away from now).

    • According to 2010 census, PR lost population. Michigan is the only other US jurisdiction to suffer such a loss. As a result, PR would have lost 1 or 2 congresspersons.

      • Probably not Luis. The key number here is population density. Puerto Rico went from 4 million to about 3.7 (If I am not mistaken).
        San Juan still has close to 2 million inhabitants, so it really wouldn't change the number.

  3. Also, a correction note:

    Puerto Rico's Secretary of State, Kenneth McClintock, informed me via twitter (@PRSecState) that Puerto Rico would have 5 congressmen, and not 6-7. This was according to a study made by Eduardo Nater.

  4. Hi Jean, you directed me over here from the Daily Grito. You mention that the PPD have dropped the "ELA soberano" concept. This is good news as the idea was unconstitutional and not viable anyways.

    I have some more questions:
    1) What has Alejandro Garcia Padilla said regarding the status issue? Does he support the status quo or does he support ELA soberano? I know the PPD recently had a big power struggle between the pro-commonwealth and the pro-free association wings. Am I correct i thinking that the pro-commonwealth wing won being that they have moved away from the ELA soberano concept?
    2) Is MUS (Sovereign Union Movement) the former PPD "soberanista" wing that left the PPD?

    • Lately, at the March 18 republican/PNP/PPD primaries, the free association leftists cleaned house at the PPD . Carmen Yulin, Cox Alomar were among the PIP simpathysers who won election to the PPD leadership wing. The PPD now appears run by seperatist “soberanistas”.
      They will call Free Association “ELA soberano” from now on to fool the public into thinking that “ELA” really means commonwealth with permanent union/citizenship with US. To make them think its the commonwealth with enhancements, never clarifying that its really independence.
      Unfortunately its working.
      ELA soberano is now tied with statehood at the latest polls. If it gets 46% and independence gets the usual 5%…its all over. Even if statehood gets 48% again.

  5. Hey Chris, good to see you here. Per your questions:

    1) Yes. The PPD has had the struggle you just described, and it seems that pro-CW forces have won. Alejandro has not clearly articulated his vision for status, but he has left the ELA Soberano option behind. Regarding the 2012 plebiscite, he does not endorse it and has not indicated how they will respond. The PPD seems to be going back to the idea of increasing the powers of the Commonwealth under the current arrangement (which is perhaps more unconstitutional than the previous option, mind you, one of the ideas is to have veto power over federal laws).
    2) Absolutely. The MUS is a weird mix of pro independence groups that were associated with the PPD and PPD members who were more "soberanista". However, the MUS lost one of its founders, Angel Collado Shwartz, so I have no idea where they are going from here on.

  6. The PPD is playing games! Consider the following (feel free to correct if I go stray…) The PPD is for……Permanent Union with US(ELA 1952-2005)
    Some PPDs called for a “rupture” in relations with US in 2007( RIP charlie rodriguez(?), notoriously appears on you tube dancing with a mini 2×4″ US flag, mocking old glory.

    1993-98 propose an “ELA” based on “4 pillars” permanent union, perpetual US citizenship, common currency, a pact of “union” giving PR internacional severeignty outside the Federal Government. Congress called it unconstitutional.
    2007-8 PPD flirts with the Idea of Free Association(not the actual, of course, but the PPD’s fantasy island version complete with generational US citizenship, and Union (?) With US( wait, that’s not free association!) Again Congress says that it amounts to “a nation within a nation” UNCONSTITUCIONAL!
    But the PPD never learns(actually, I believe its intentional) ……2011, Alejandro Garcia Padilla proposes “a dynamic new ELA, yet endorses the current commomwealth in the same statement!! Now recently they proposed Sovereign Commonwealth with “powers not delegated to Federal Goverment, delegated to Puerto Rico under article III of US CONSTITUTION AND THE 10th amendment. These are states rights!!

    Now they are against “ELA soberano”
    I said intentional before because I believe the PPD NEVER wanted to participate in the status referendum. They tricked the referendum into having “ELA soberano” So that after the referendum takes place with the possible statehood petition, the PPD can go to Congress and argue that the results should be discarded because the PPD “was not represented” ITS ALL A GAME FOR THE PPD.

  7. Remember the PPDs gameplan…….They will “wait” to decide what action or position to take. Before you laugh like I did, consider the what if………
    What if this is the plan of the PPD? To dupe the referendum into having Free association aka ELA soberano, then, go to Congress After Statehood wins to ask Congress or the Supreme court to nullify the results? They will claim innocence and disenfranchizement in that the ELA Soberano WAS NOT THEIR IDEA! The PPD has lied in the face of Congress before, especially when they introduce and push their uncostitucional ELA+/improved ELA versions.