Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner (ie. our non-voting congressman) Pedro Pierluisi proposed a bill in Congress to grant Puerto Rico the type of vote the Senate rarely gives itself: a straight Yes/No vote on Statehood. Readers will recall that Puerto Rico held a non-binding local referendum in November, where close to 54% voted against keeping the current colonial status, and close to 61% of those who voted in the second ballot, did so for statehood. Despite the “victory”, the Statehood party was kicked out of power in that same election. Pierluisi has become the leader of the Statehood party, in part because he garnered more votes than even the current governor. Well aware that Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla will not make any meaningful move on status, and President Obama’s team is not ready to eliminate the current status as an option for a future referendum (despite 54% voting against it), Pierluisi must make a bold move. Will it pay off?
Pierluisi’s up or down vote on Statehood, assuming it is even taken up by a Congress dead set on spending its time on Benghazi, IRS Audits and futile attempts at passing austerity budgets (without counting the looming immigration battle), could be a make it -or- break it moment for the statehood movement in Puerto Rico. On the one hand, Congress (ideally) would commit itself to a binding referendum on Puerto Rico’s century-old colonial problem. If the people of Puerto Rico voted in favor of statehood in a simple yes/no ballot, Congress would have (as much as Congress can be forced to do anything) offer Puerto Rico admission as the 51st state. The move would come at a time in which Latino electorate power is at its highest and both parties are well aware of not only the importance of the Latino electorate, but of the Puerto Rican communities in Florida and other swing (or soon to be swing) states.
On the other hand, Pierluisi could be setting up the statehood movement for its biggest setback in decades. Although 54% of the Island voted against keeping the colonial option, 5.5% voted for Independence and close to 33% for “Sovereign Commonwealth”. While some of those in the “Sovereign Commonwealth” category could be swayed towards Statehood, the 5.5% who voted against the current colonial status, alongside a handful of the Commonwealth supporters, would be enough to drop the vote for statehood below the 50% mark, effectively dooming the vote. A setback on a yes/no ballot would be disastrous for the statehood movement as the latter has argued that its victory is blocked by an artificial voting arrangement in which the status-quo (ie. the colonial status) gets enough votes to block any non-colonial option. If Pierluisi’s plan were to go into effect, statehood would ride on its own and it would have two sides of the electorate against it: the small but vocal independence movement, and the large and now-in-power commonwealth movement. A defeat in the polls on a yes/no vote could put the issue of status on the back burner for decades.
That said, Pierluisi does a service to the entire Island by pushing this issue in Congress, regardless of one’s view on the matter. Congress needs to be reminded, as much as possible, that it still maintains a colonial possession and that 54% of the Island voted against the current colonial status. Whether or not Pierluisi’s up-or-down vote is the solution is not for me to say, but a federal referendum that does not include the current colonial option is the only true way out of this political mess. President Obama’s team floated the idea of a new referendum which could keep the current colonial option in the ballot, a move that defeats the entire purpose of the process.
Pierluisi is embarking on a very bold move, for him and his party. If his bill survives in the news for more than a week, he may have achieved more than many who came before him. If his bill survives Congress and goes up to a vote on the Island, he may end up regretting ever bringing it to the floor.