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In response to a November 6 plebiscite vote in Puerto Rico, where 54% of voters rejected the island’s current status quo and 61% chose statehood as its preferred option, the White House today said that Puerto Rico has “made it clear” that it wants to resolve its political status, according to a report in El Nuevo Día.

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As the newspaper reports in Spanish, David Agnew and Tony West, co-chairs for The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, stated that the Obama Administration “will work with Congress to provide the people of Puerto Rico a clear process that would establish ways that Puerto Ricans could determine their status. [Note: this quotes and others were translated from the END report in Spanish. They do not reflect the official English version of the statement. END received an advanced copy of the statement.]

Agnew and West also stated the following:

“This Administration is committed to the principle that political status is a topic of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico.”

“Besides the status question, the Task Force will continue to work with Congress, the people of Puerto Rico and its leaders to address the concerns of the (close to) four million American citizens who call Puerto Rico home, implementing the recommendations of the 2011 report to promote the creation of jobs, improve security, education and address other important education, health and clean energy goals.”

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This week, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D), who is a non-voting member of the United States Congress, appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” with Robert Siegel.

Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi

Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi

The following link is the audio of the interview, and the transcript is below: NPR Pierluisi Interview. As suspected, the Pierluisi interview confirms several of the main themes surrounding Puerto Rico’s status and where it goes next:

  • The main point that is really hard to ignore is that 54% of the electorate agreed that the island’s current commonwealth arrangement is no longer a viable option. Can we all agree to that or will that still get spun?
  • Pierluisi did suggest that question two was not a clear mandate for statehood. The results were still muddy, and as I have argued before, that muddiness had to do with the very poor strategic decision by Puerto Rico’s governor-elect Alejandro García Padilla (pro-commonwealth Democrat) telling voters to leave the second ballot blank. Blank was not an option in this plebiscite, so the results don’t count. People can spin it all they want, saying that the plebiscite was just a ploy by the pro-statehood party to portray a result that is not reflective of the majority of Puerto Ricans. But the fact remains: all this talk of statehood and all this national attention that Puerto Rico is getting about statehood would have gone away if García Padilla and other pro-commonwealth leaders had just told their supporters to choose options like independence or associated free state. They didn’t, and now the U.S. media is crafting a narrative that puts statehood at the front of the agenda.
  • Something should be done. Anything. Respect the vote. Have Congress act, especially the Puerto Rican members of Congress who have a vote. Hold another vote, one that is binding and clear. Puerto Rico must be a priority on the national agenda, especially since Puerto Ricans were a major factor in handing a Florida victory to President Obama.

TRANSCRIPT

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Of the 50 million Hispanics in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are of Mexican origin. The second largest group – accounting for about 9 percent – are the nearly five million Puerto Ricans who live in the 50 states and the District of Columbia – that is, not on the island of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. The island has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War.

Well, on Election Day, Puerto Rico held a vote on the island’s status, and although some people dispute the meaning of the result, the winning option was statehood. Joining us now to talk about this is a statehood advocate, resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who is also Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress. He caucuses with the Democratic Party. Welcome.

RESIDENT COMMISSIONER PEDRO PIERLUISI: Thank you. Thank you for having me here, Robert. I’ll be glad to expand on what happened in Puerto Rico on November 6th.

SIEGEL: Well, let’s begin with the rather controversial result. There were two questions on the ballot. First: Should the current territorial status continue? Fifty-four percent said no. And the second question was: If not, what should be the status? And of three choices offered – independence, a sovereign, free associated state or statehood – statehood got 61 percent of the vote.

Some people say, though, so many people didn’t vote on question number two, it really doesn’t say that much.

PIERLUISI: Yes. But let’s go step by step. The first question was pretty clear, basically whether Puerto Rican should remain the way it is, a territory. And 54 percent of the voters said no.

SIEGEL: But just to pursue the result one more time, about a quarter of the people who voted on question number one didn’t vote on question number two. Some people said they didn’t even know they could vote, or that it made any sense to vote on question number two if they supported the status quo.

PIERLUISI: It was pretty clear in terms of the public discourse. And there was a lot of informative ads telling voters that these were two questions, separate questions, and that regardless of the answer to the first question, they should make a choice. So that’s where we are.

SIEGEL: Right. All right, that’s where we are. So we have a result. We have an election that’s taken place, a referendum. President Obama has said – and I’m quoting now – “When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.” The Republican platform of 2012 said that party supports the right of U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine.

But it then speaks of that happening by means of a general right of referendum, or specific referenda sponsored by the U.S. government. Does that mean a different kind of election than the one you just held in Puerto Rico?

PIERLUISI: The government of Puerto Rico has every right to hold a plebiscite, to consult the people of Puerto Rico regarding their wishes. But the truth is that for a change in the status of Puerto Rico to happen, you need both Congress and Puerto Rico agreeing to it.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you a couple of questions about statehood. The benefits of statehood may be self-evident. On the other hand, Puerto Rico enjoys a very unusual status. Puerto Ricans don’t pay federal income tax, I understand it. You have your own Olympic team and, you know, your own baseball team in the World Baseball Classic, and you also use Spanish as an official language.

This makes you remarkably different from the other states. Would Puerto Ricans be willing to give up those privileges of the current situation in order to become a state?

PIERLUISI: Well, we would have to see if Congress imposes terms and conditions on the admission of Puerto Rico as a state. There are now over 50 million Hispanics in America. Spanish is the predominant language in many areas of the country. Now, Puerto Rico will get a lot of additional federal assistance, but at the same time, corporations and wealthy taxpayers on the island would pay federal income taxes.

Right now, we pay federal payroll taxes – Social Security, Medicare. But close to half of the households in the U.S. mainland do not owe federal income taxes. So in the case of Puerto Rico, right now, at least eight out of 10 taxpayers wouldn’t be paying federal taxes, anyway. I believe in the long run, this would be a win-win for both the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

All property values would increase, like it happened in Hawaii and Alaska. The economic growth in the island would also increase like it happened in Hawaii after Hawaii became a state. So that would offset any kind of impact that federal income taxes could have.

SIEGEL: As you know, the smart money in Washington, and certainly on the world’s editorial pages, is against the prospects of Puerto Rico becoming a state. People note that unlike Alaska or Hawaii, Puerto Rico would not enter with just one seat in Congress. It would have a delegation about as big as that of Connecticut or Oregon’s. Lots of people look at Puerto Rican voting in the States and say they’re all going to be Democrats, and the Republicans are not going to admit that many new Democrats to the Congress.

PIERLUISI: They don’t know Puerto Rico that well. Puerto Rico is predominantly Catholic but a lot of evangelical Christians in Puerto Rico right now. It is conservative on social issues. Pretty much this is like a middle-of-the-road type terrain. Puerto Rico should not continue to have the current status which is colonial in nature if the people of Puerto Rico – and on top of it, American citizens – are telling the world we don’t want it anymore.

SIEGEL: Well, Representative Pierluisi, thank you very much for talking with us.

PIERLUISI: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Pedro Pierluisi is the resident commissioner and nonvoting member of Congress from Puerto Rico.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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Yesterday Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, a non-voting member of the US Congress, published the following public letter on his Facebook site (the original document can be seen here). Pierluisi, a pro-statehood Democrat who actively campaigned for President Obama and distanced himself from Republican pro-statehood and Mitt Romney supporter Governor Luis Fortuño, who lost his re-election bid on November 6. As suspected, Pierluisi is using his political capital to try and get the Obama administration to begin a status process for Puerto Rico, a US territory/colony since American troops landed on the island in 1898.

In the meantime, Governor-elect Alejandro García Padilla (a pro-commonwealth Democrat) wrote his own letter to President Obama. In that letter, García Padilla said that the latest status vote—which rejected the island’s current status quo in its first question and preferred statehood even though close to 500,000 votes in the second question were left blank—did not produce a “clear result,” and suggested that he meet with the President to discuss this matter formally. He also added that even though the pro-statehood faction is claiming victory, García Padilla believes that this is not the case. He told the President that the combined voted of those who support the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA), Puerto Rico’s current commonwealth system, defeated the statehood voices.

Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi

Here is Pierluisi’s full letter:

November 13, 2012
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

I want to begin by warmly congratulating you on your re-election. You and the administration you lead have done an outstanding job under difficult circumstances at home and abroad, and the election results are evidence that the American people recognize this fact. Moreover, in your first term in office, you have been a champion of fair treatment for the U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico and the other territories, particularly in the areas of economic development, health care, and public safety. I look forward with enthusiasm to continuing to work with you over the next four years.

I write to you today about an issue of fundamental importance not only to Puerto Rico but also to the nation as a whole. As you know, on November 6th—the same day as the U.S. general elections and Puerto Rico’s local elections—Puerto Rico held a political status plebiscite authorized by local law. Although the final results have not yet been certified by the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission, I would like to convey the preliminary results to you,[1] to describe their significance, and to express my hope and expectation that the White House will take appropriate and timely action in light of these results, consistent with the recommendations contained in the March 2011 Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, a body whose mandate you renewed—and expanded—though Executive Order 13517 (October 30, 2009). I know this letter will be the first of many communications between my congressional office and your administration on this topic.

The plebiscite ballot consisted of two questions. On the first question, voters were asked whether they want Puerto Rico to remain a U.S. territory, the status the Island has had since 1898. Over 1.74 million people responded to this question. That is approximately 75 percent of all registered voters in Puerto Rico, a level of participation that is substantially higher than the national turnout for the U.S. general elections on the same day. More than 943,000 voters—54.0 percent—said they did not want the current territory status to continue, while 803,400 voters—46.0 percent—said they did want it to continue.

On the second question, voters were asked to express their preference among the three alternatives to the current territory status that are legally and politically viable according to the federal government and international law: statehood, nationhood in free association with the United States, and independence. Over 1.32 million people chose an option. 61.13 percent—nearly 810,000 people—voted for statehood; 33.33 percent—about 442,000 people—voted for Puerto Rico to become a freely associated state; and 5.54 percent—about 73,000 people—voted for independence. In addition, some 472,000 voters did not provide an answer, a point addressed below.

As evident from the hundreds of news reports that have appeared in the national and international press in the wake of this plebiscite, the vote was historic in several respects.

This was the first time voters were directly asked whether they want Puerto Rico to continue as a territory. One of the two main political parties in Puerto Rico, the Popular Democratic Party, strongly urged a “Yes” vote. Nevertheless, the “No” vote against the current territory status won by an eight-point margin, 54 percent to 46 percent. Those voting “No” included statehood supporters, as well as advocates of free association and independence.

There is no reasonable way to interpret these results as anything other than a decisive rejection of the current territory status. This status deprives the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico of the two most basic democratic rights: the right to choose the leaders who enact and execute their national laws, and the right to equal treatment under those laws. This vote fundamentally alters the terms of the status debate in Puerto Rico, which has seemingly been stuck in neutral for years. In my view, after this vote, the question is not whether, but when, Puerto Rico will cease to be a territory and will instead have a political status—either statehood or nationhood—that provides its people with full democratic rights and full equality under the law. In short: it is clear that a solid majority of my constituents want to close the long territory chapter in Puerto Rico’s political life, and to begin a fresh new chapter.

The result of the second question, which asked voters which status should replace the current territory status, is also of great import. As noted, of the 1.32 million people who voted for one of the three viable alternatives to the current status, a supermajority of over 61 percent chose statehood. It is critical to note that the number of votes cast in favor of statehood on the second question—nearly 810,000—is also greater than the number of votes—803,400—cast in favor of the current status on the first question. For the first time ever, there are now more people in Puerto Rico who want to become a state than who want to continue as a territory. This fact further undermines the democratic legitimacy of the current status.

Naturally, some are seeking to downplay the historic nature of this plebiscite by citing the voters who left the second question blank at the urging of some leaders in the Popular Democratic Party. This argument may have some superficial appeal, but it does not withstand scrutiny.

First and foremost, in our democracy, it is well-settled that outcomes are determined by ballots properly cast. Power rests with the citizen who votes, not the one who stays home or refuses to choose from among the options provided.

Moreover, this was the first status vote in Puerto Rico’s history to include only the valid status options. True self-determination is a choice among options that can actually be implemented, not an exercise in wishful thinking. Because all viable status options were on the ballot, not voting was an empty act.

Logically, some voters may have left the second question blank simply because they prefer the current status to any of the three possible alternatives. Those voters were able to—and did in fact—vote for the current status in the first question, so their viewpoint was fully reflected in the plebiscite results. Other voters may have declined to answer the second question because they were led to believe there was another status option that should have been on the ballot—namely, a proposal sometimes called “Enhanced Commonwealth.” But each of the last four presidential administrations, including your administration, has considered and rejected this proposal as a valid status option,[2] as have all key congressional leaders who have examined the proposal.[3] A blank vote to protest the exclusion of an impossible status proposal is entitled to no weight.

To summarize: a majority of voters in Puerto Rico have soundly rejected the current status in favor of a new status. Among the three viable alternatives, statehood won a decisive victory. And, in a historical first, statehood obtained more votes than the current status (or any other status option).

* * *
In light of these results, I believe that the White House has a clear basis, and a clear responsibility, to act. I further believe that the precise steps to be taken ought to be guided and informed by the recommendations in the March 2011 Task Force Report and the public statement you delivered during your historic visit to Puerto Rico on June 14, 2011.

The first recommendation in the Task Force Report notes that the government of Puerto Rico had plans to hold a plebiscite under local law. The Task Force states: “Without taking a position on the particular details of this proposal, the Task Force recommends that the President and Congress support any fair, transparent, and swift effort that is consistent with and reflects the will of the people of Puerto Rico. If the process produces a clear result, Congress should act on it quickly with the President’s support.” See Page 23.

In its second recommendation, the Task Force says that four status options should be included in the plebiscite: “Statehood, Independence, Free Association, and Commonwealth.” See Page 24. The Task Force then explicitly states: “Under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.” See Page 26.

In its third recommendation, the Task Force discusses a number of possible ways to structure the plebiscite process, while confirming that it “supports any fair method for determining the will of the people of Puerto Rico.” See Page 26.

And in its seventh and final recommendation, the Task Force states that, “[i]f efforts on the Island do not provide a clear result in the short term, the President should support, and Congress should enact” federal legislation that “specifies in advance for the people of Puerto Rico a set of acceptable status options that the United States is politically committed to fulfilling.” The Task Force recommends that “the Administration develop, draft, and work with Congress to enact the proposed legislation.” See Page 30.

Several months after the release of the Task Force Report, you traveled to Puerto Rico and delivered a speech where you stated as follows: “[A] report from our presidential task force on Puerto Rican status provided a meaningful way forward on this question so that the residents of the island can determine their own future. And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.”

I am the first to recognize and respect that you face many important domestic and foreign policy challenges as you begin your second term in office. However, in light of these historic plebiscite results and the commitments embodied in the Task Force Report, I believe that the White House must devote the necessary time, resources and—above all—leadership to help resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s political status. There are a number of possible steps that the White House can take to fulfill its responsibility in this regard, and I look forward to discussing the alternatives with senior administration officials and congressional leaders in the coming days. In the final analysis, the people of Puerto Rico have spoken and, as their official representative in Washington, I intend to do everything within my power to ensure that the federal government responds in an appropriate and timely fashion.

Congratulations again.
Sincerely,
Pedro R. Pierluisi
Member of Congress

cc: Hon. David Agnew, Co-Chair, The President’s Task Force of Puerto Rico’s Status
Hon. Tony West, Co-Chair, The President’s Task Force of Puerto Rico’s Status
Hon. Cecilia Muñoz, Director, White House Domestic Policy Council
The Hon. Luis Fortuño, Governor of Puerto Rico
The Hon. Alejandro García Padilla, Governor-elect of Puerto Rico

[1] As of this writing, ballots from 1,615 of Puerto Rico’s 1,643 electoral units—98.3 percent—have been tabulated.

[2] See, e.g., March 2011 Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, pg. 26 (“[C]onsistent with the legal conclusions reached by prior Task Force reports, one aspect of some proposals for enhanced Commonwealth remains constitutionally problematic—proposals that would establish a relationship between Puerto Rico and the Federal Government that could not be altered except by mutual consent. This was a focus of past Task Force reports. The Obama Administration has taken a fresh look at the issue of such mutual consent provisions, and it has concluded that such provisions would not be enforceable because a future Congress could choose to alter that relationship unilaterally.”)

[3] See, e.g., December 1, 2010 Letter from Chairman Jeff Bingaman and Ranking Republican Member Lisa Murkowski, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, to President Barack Obama (endorsing the view that the “Enhanced Commonwealth” proposal is “incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws of the United States in several respects”); see also House Report 111-294, accompanying H.R. 2499 in the 111th Congress (“Proposals for such a governing arrangement have been consistently opposed by federal authorities in the executive and legislative branches, including this Committee, on both constitutional and policy grounds. Nevertheless, this hybrid proposal continues to be promoted in Puerto Rico as a feasible status option. Such proposals have resulted in misinformed and inconclusive referenda in Puerto Rico in July 1967, November 1993, and December 1998.”)

Last week, I suggested that García Padilla avoid making the status vote a political matter that has kept Puerto Rico from progressing. I still believe that his suggestion to leave the second question blank in the vote backfired since it allowed the pro-statehood factions to control the status agenda. This latest example of Obama letters confirms that. Pierluisi took advantage of the vote and proactively pushed his agenda. García Padilla still appears to be in a defensive position, and he continues to place politics over the vote.

Alejandro García Padilla

Now García Padilla enters his first term with a major headache, which could have easily been avoided if he had told his supporters to choose other status options for the second question besides statehood. Furthermore, García Padilla is making a huge tactical mistake by ignoring the KEY TAKEAWAY of this entire vote, which is the first question. That question led to a rejection of the island’s current status quo, which García Padilla supported. He cannot dodge that fact, and if he continues to do so, the luster of his well-deserved victory over Fortuño will fade rather quickly.

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