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Obama Charms Puerto Rico in 2008

Before I share my commentary about the latest White House Report on Puerto Rico’s status later this week, I wanted to post the original letter that then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama sent to Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, now the former Governor of Puerto Rico. This letter was sent during a critical time in the 2008 Democratic presidential race when Obama was still virtually tied with Hilary Rodham Clinton and the Puerto Rican Democratic Primary meant something in terms of garnering much needed primary delegates.

February 12, 2008
Honorable Aníbal Acevedo Vilá
Governor Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
La Fortaleza
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901

Dear Governor Acevedo Vilá:
Puerto Rico is a vitally important part of our country and Puerto Ricans have made immeasurable contributions to the United States. As President of the United States, I will pay close attention to issues that have an impact on the well-being of the people of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s status must be based on the principle of self-determination. Puerto Rico has a proud history, an extraordinary culture, its own traditions, customs and language, and a distinct identity. As President, I will work closely with the Puerto Rican government, its civil society, and with Congress to create a genuine and transparent process for self-determination that will be true to the best traditions of democracy.

As President, I will actively engage Congress and the Puerto Rican people in promoting this deliberative, open and unbiased process, that may include a constitutional convention or a plebiscite, and my Administration will adhere to a policy of strict neutrality on Puerto Rican status matters. My Administration will recognize all valid options to resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s status, including commonwealth, statehood, and independence. I strongly believe in equality before the law for all American citizens. This principle extends fully to Puerto Ricans.

The American citizenship of Puerto Ricans is constitutionally guaranteed for as long as the people of Puerto Rico choose to retain it. I reject the assertion in reports submitted by a Presidential Task Force on December 22, 2005 and December 21, 2007 that sovereignty over Puerto Rico could be unilaterally transferred by the United States to a foreign country, and the U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans is not constitutionally guaranteed.

I will also work closely with the government of Puerto Rico, its private sector and labor leaders to advance an aggressive agenda of job creation, economic development and new prosperity. The levels of unemployment on the Island over the last three decades are unacceptable, which is why I will propose the creation a federal-Puerto Rico joint task force to study and report not later than August 31, 2009 on specific ways to maximize the use of existing federal initiatives to generate jobs in Puerto Rico or on new federal initiatives to achieve that goal.

In addition, I will work closely with the govemment of Puerto  Rico and Congress to enhance the participation of Puerto Rico in Medicaid and all federal health care assistance programs. My Administration will actively work with the Department of Defense as well to achieve an environmentally acceptable clean-up ofthe former U.S. Navy lands in Vieques, Puerto Rico. We will closely monitor the health of the people of Vieques and promote appropriate remedies to health conditions caused by military activities conducted by the U.S. Navy on Vieques. I will also work to evaluate and expand the existing land use plan for the former U.S. Navy lands to prioritize improving the lives of the Island’s residents and the sustainable economic development of the people of Vieques.

Sincerely, Barack Obama

Three years have passed, and with the current recommendations that President Obama’s Task Force included about Puerto Rico, it is safe to say that Candidate Obama sounded more promising that President Obama. In the end, President Obama did not achieve what he had promised, and I speak for many Puerto Ricans, both on the island and on the mainland, who are disappointed by the latest events.

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111th CONGRESS 2d Session

H. R. 2499


AN ACT

To provide for a federally sanctioned self-determination process for the people of Puerto Rico.

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.

    This Act may be cited as the `Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010′.

SEC. 2. FEDERALLY SANCTIONED PROCESS FOR PUERTO RICO’S SELF-DETERMINATION.

    (a) First Plebiscite- The Government of Puerto Rico is authorized to conduct a plebiscite in Puerto Rico. The 2 options set forth on the ballot shall be preceded by the following statement: `Instructions: Mark one of the following 2 options:
    • `(1) Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of political status. If you agree, mark here XX.
    • `(2) Puerto Rico should have a different political status. If you agree, mark here XX.’.
    (b) Procedure if Majority in First Plebiscite Favors Option 1- If a majority of the ballots in the plebiscite are cast in favor of Option 1, the Government of Puerto Rico is authorized to conduct additional plebiscites under subsection (a) at intervals of every 8 years from the date that the results of the prior plebiscite are certified under section 3(d).
    (c) Procedure if Majority in First Plebiscite Favors Option 2- If a majority of the ballots in a plebiscite conducted pursuant to subsection (a) or (b) are cast in favor of Option 2, the Government of Puerto Rico is authorized to conduct a plebiscite on the following 4 options:
    • (1) Independence: Puerto Rico should become fully independent from the United States. If you agree, mark here XX.
    • (2) Sovereignty in Association with the United States: Puerto Rico and the United States should form a political association between sovereign nations that will not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution. If you agree, mark here XX.
    • (3) Statehood: Puerto Rico should be admitted as a State of the Union. If you agree, mark here XX.
    • (4) Commonwealth: Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of political status. If you agree, mark here XXX.

SEC. 3. APPLICABLE LAWS AND OTHER REQUIREMENTS.

    (a) Applicable Laws- All Federal laws applicable to the election of the Resident Commissioner shall, as appropriate and consistent with this Act, also apply to any plebiscites held pursuant to this Act. Any reference in such Federal laws to elections shall be considered, as appropriate, to be a reference to the plebiscites, unless it would frustrate the purposes of this Act.
    (b) Rules and Regulations- The Puerto Rico State Elections Commission shall issue all rules and regulations necessary to carry out the plebiscites under this Act.
    (c) Eligibility To Vote- Each of the following shall be eligible to vote in any plebiscite held under this Act:
    • (1) All eligible voters under the electoral laws in effect in Puerto Rico at the time the plebiscite is held.
    • (2) All United States citizens born in Puerto Rico who comply, to the satisfaction of the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission, with all Commission requirements (other than the residency requirement) applicable to eligibility to vote in a general election in Puerto Rico. Persons eligible to vote under this subsection shall, upon timely request submitted to the Commission in compliance with any terms imposed by the Electoral Law of Puerto Rico, be entitled to receive an absentee ballot for the plebiscite.
    (d) Certification of Plebiscite Results- The Puerto Rico State Elections Commission shall certify the results of any plebiscite held under this Act to the President of the United States and to the Members of the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States.
    (e) English Language Requirements- The Puerto Rico State Elections Commission shall–
    • (1) ensure that all ballots used for any plebiscite held under this Act include the full content of the ballot printed in English;
    • (2) inform persons voting in any plebiscite held under this Act that, if Puerto Rico retains its current political status or is admitted as a State of the United States, the official language requirements of the Federal Government shall apply to Puerto Rico in the same manner and to the same extent as throughout the United States; and
    • (3) inform persons voting in any plebiscite held under this Act that, if Puerto Rico retains its current political status or is admitted as a State of the United States, it is the Sense of Congress that it is in the best interest of the United States for the teaching of English to be promoted in Puerto Rico as the language of opportunity and empowerment in the United States in order to enable students in public schools to achieve English language proficiency.
    (f) Plebiscite Costs- All costs associated with any plebiscite held under this Act (including the printing, distribution, transportation, collection, and counting of all ballots) shall be paid for by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Passed the House of Representatives April 29, 2010.

Attest:

Clerk.

111th CONGRESS 2d Session

H. R. 2499

AN ACT

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UPDATE, August 15, 2013: Since I wrote this piece two years ago, my positions have evolved. My latest Boston Globe opinion piece reflects them. Here is the piece: “Free Puerto Rico from political limbo.”

UPDATE, November 8, 2012: I wrote this piece close to two years ago, and I will be planning to write another one to share other reasons why the latest November 6, 2012 plebiscite really doesn’t do anything to the current status debate.

Americans will never accept a flag with 51 stars in it

As I begin to cover the island’s next status plebiscite—where Puerto Ricans will once again determine in a non-binding referendum their political future—I wanted to take a minute and provide my reasons for why my homeland will never be welcome as the 51st state of the Union. First, a little history:

  • The next plebiscite, which the US House approved last year but the Senate did not, would be the fourth time the colony of the United States, a US territory since 1898, will vote on its political status. In 1967, 60.7% of Puerto Ricans chose Commonwealth or Associated Free State status (established in 1952), while 39% chose statehood, and 0.6% chose independence. The 1967 plebiscite had a voter turnout of 66%. In 1993, 48.6% voted for Commonwealth status, 46.3% for statehood, and 4.4% for independence. The turnout in 1993 was 74%. In 1998, 0.06% chose Commonwealth, 0.59% chose Free Association (think the Cook Island’s relationship with New Zealand), 46.49% chose statehood, 2.54% chose independence, and 50.3% chose NONE OF THE ABOVE. The 1998 turnout was 71%.
  • The 1998 results were an anomaly because the pro-Commonwealth party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) recommended to choose the NONE OF THE ABOVE option to its members as a form of protest since it felt that the criteria set forth by the then ruling pro-statehood party, the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico (PNP) was seen as unjust.
  • In 1991, Puerto Ricans voted on constitutional amendment referendum that, if passed, would have added an amendment to the Puerto Rican Constitution that allowed the following points (source): “the inalienable right to freely and democratically determine Puerto Rico’s political status; the right to choose a dignified, non-colonial, non-territorial status not subordinate to plenary powers of Congress; the right to vote for three alternatives; the right that only results with a majority will be considered triumphant in a plebiscite; the right that any status would protect Puerto Rico’s culture, language and identity, and continued independent participation in international sports events; the right that any status guarantees the individual’s right to American citizenship.” The referendum failed, 53% against and 47% in favor.

So now that you have the history of this politically charged debate (it has basically been the respective rallying cry between the PPD and the PNP), I still say this: In today’s America, a place where anti-Latino sentiment towards illegal immigrants and legal citizens has never been stronger, why would Puerto Rico, a proud country with ties to both the United States and Latin America, want to become the 51st state? Even if it did (and the current governor Luis Fortuño is a strong advocate of statehood), the America we know today would never welcome it.

Want proof? Let the videos talk. The first video is a Republican response to the House bill that passed last year that approved the next plebiscite. This video was produced BEFORE the House voted on its passage.

Ok, so you know have the facts, right? No? Then let’s have FOX NEWS’ Glenn Beck explain it to you. These videos were aired on Beck’s radio and TV shows the days before the passage of the House bill.

The newest expert on Puerto Rican politics

From his radio show:

Beck takes that radio message (and don’t get me started on its ignorance and misinformation) to his TV show the very same day. Hope you like the blackboards. Here is clip 1:

In clip 2, Beck continues:

So, you got it, class? You have everything you need? Like I tell my pro-statehood family members and friends, Glenn Beck’s America does not care nor does it want Puerto Rico as a state. If it were to become one, Puerto Ricans might as well be illegal immigrants in Arizona.

Kind of makes you long for the days of Ronald Reagan, doesn’t it?

To my fellow Puerto Ricans, stop believing the hype. Yes, we are proud. We are proud to be Puerto Ricans. And we are proud to be American citizens. We have defended the United States in wars since 1917. Yet, now in Glenn Beck’s America, where Tea Parties and Minutemen lead to senseless killings (see Brisenia Flores) and blatant racism, we will not be welcome in the US. Let us choose our own destiny: either free association or independence. The politics of the last 60 years are over in Puerto Rico. It is time to forge a new future that will truly set us free.

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I wrote this piece in 2011. It still resonates today.

The history of Puerto Rico is complex. As the island enters its 113th year as a territory colony of the United States, the interdependencies between the U.S. and Puerto Rico weren’t, and never will be, a simple matter. It is a history of paradoxes and complications regarding political identity and basic human rights of self-government.

Puerto Rico's first administrative cabinet under the Jones Act of 1917

Take, for example, the 1917 Jones Act, an act of Congress that granted U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans born on the island. (Important sidenote: Unknown to many, this is not a Constitutional act, but it would take a Supreme Court act to revoke the right.) The Jones Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson on March 2, 1917, not only established U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans on the island, it also created a new form of government. As the following states (source: Library of Congress):

The Jones Act separated the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of Puerto Rican government, provided civil rights to the individual, and created a locally elected bicameral legislature. The two houses were a Senate consisting of 19 members and a 39-member House of Representatives. However, the Governor and the President of the United States had the power to veto any law passed by the legislature. Also, the United States Congress had the power to stop any action taken by the legislature in Puerto Rico. The U.S. maintained control over fiscal and economic matters and exercised authority over mail services, immigration, defense and other basic governmental matters.

There are so many contradictions in the act that many people are unaware about and we would like to make some clarifications:

  • Even though Puerto Ricans have the right to govern themselves, in the end the Governor of Puerto Rico and the U.S. government still have to power to veto and control any legislation on the island. That is a huge concession of power and rights.
  • History has stated that Puerto Ricans did not request for citizenship at the time. In fact, the member of Congress representing the island in 1917, Luis Muñoz Rivera, questioned such imposition in late 1916, basically telling Congress that Puerto Ricans would prefer Puerto Rican citizenship.
  • The U.S. still has control over several basic government services that in any other form of government, would be under the jurisdiction of a local government. In the end, Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship, but never gained much more, except for the right to freely travel with a U.S. passport and also freely live in any other part of the United States.
  • History also suggests that the United States needed more men for WWI. After Wilson signed the Jones Act and after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, military conscription was passed in June, 1917. This meant that as U.S. citizens, eligible Puerto Rican males were drafted into the armed forces. Over 2,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted to serve at the very beginning. In the end, it was estimated that 18,000 Puerto Ricans served in World War I. Most of them went to the Panama Canal, but some Puerto Ricans, like musician Rafael Hernández, proudly served on the Western Front. Puerto Ricans who were not eligible were sent to labor camps in the South.

The issue of U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans has always been a study in paradoxes. For example, a Puerto Rican-born individual who lives in the United States could vote in U.S. elections, like the ones for President, but that same person could not vote in those elections if living in Puerto Rico. The same goes for federal taxes. If you are Puerto Rican-born and live in the U.S., you have to file a federal tax return. On the island, though, a Puerto Rican does not have to file a return.

In general, it is safe to say that most Puerto Ricans value the benefits that a U.S. citizenship has bestowed on them. However, Puerto Ricans still fall into a second tier of U.S. citizens, when compared to their fellow American citizens. Issues of civil and human rights (noted by the U.S. crackdown on Puerto Rican Nationalists who never truly had the right to free assembly after tensions arose in the 1940s and 1950s) are still valid concerns.

As the island begins to yet again explore the political direction it wants to take, the question of whether Puerto Ricans would trade in their U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rican citizenship will always be open for debate and dissection. Four generations have passed since the Jones Act became law, and for a certain group of U.S. citizens, full constitutional rights have yet to be achieved.

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