• Andrés L. Córdova

Statehood for Puerto Rico and the obstruction of justice

Opinion by: Andrés L. Córdova



Last week, in a letter addressed to Puerto Rico’s State Electoral Commission regarding the upcoming plebiscite on statehood, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen informed it that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would not be endorsing the ballot because it failed, among other self-serving issues, to include the territorial alternative. The DOJ took a similar position in the 2017 plebiscite, and although the territorial alternative was included in the ballot at their request, it still refused to endorse it.

At this stage it is obvious that the Trump administration has no interest in addressing Puerto Rico’s political status. In fact, Trump’s statements in the past about considering either selling or exchanging Puerto Rico, and his systematic foot-dragging in matters of federal assignments, have been clear indications of his cavalier attitude towards Puerto Rico and the rights of its 3.2 million American citizens. In this context, the recent DOJ refusal to endorse the upcoming plebiscite ballot should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Of course, opponents to statehood for Puerto Rico are characterizing this refusal as a political victory for the territory. For example, Aníbal Acevedo Vila, the island’s former governor and who was once again running for resident commissioner, lost no time claiming that the DOJ threw the plebiscite in the trash and that it was, evidently, a wasted effort. It should be of concern for all those who are committed to solving Puerto Rico’s centennial status question that the principal ideological leaders of the territorial Popular Democratic Party would become allied with the Trump administration, partly because of their own cynical motives.

The Popular Democratic Party's ongoing push for tax benefits for American controlled multinational corporations under the Tax Code, while aiming to control the territorial government, is its main reason for opposing the political enfranchisement of its citizens.

In contrast, during his eulogy to the late-Congressman John Lewis, former President Barack Obama remarked on the ongoing political struggle to achieve political representation for Washington, D.C., residents and Puerto Rico within the context of civil rights. Although welcomed, one could only have wished that he would have been more proactive on the issue while he was a sitting president. Although his 2011 White House report on Puerto Rico recognizes that its political status is the main obstacle to any kind of development, it falls way short of calling for equal representation of Puerto Ricans in Congress.

Obama’s remarks must also be tempered by the perennial non-committal position on Puerto Rico that the Democratic Party seems prepared to accept as its platform in the upcoming convention. As in the past, the Democratic Party invokes the bromide of “self-determination” as a political expedient to straddle the pro-statehood and pro-territorialism factions of its delegation. By now it should be clear that the call for “self-determination” by stateside politicians is code for either continued territorial or independence status, never for statehood. In this context, presumptive democratic nominee Joe Biden and the Democratic Party do not offer any change for Puerto Rico on the status question. So much for the audacity of hope.

The main reason for Rosen’s objection to the plebiscite ballot is that it fails to include the territorial alternative — standard trope of anti-statehood discourse. The real purpose behind the Trump administration and the current DOJ’s stance is to keep the status question off the table so as not to upset their perceived political interests.

Puerto Rico’s Republican Party, among them current Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, would do well to reconsider its support of President Trump in the upcoming general election.

In this context, it is a sad comment on both the Democratic and Republican Party that they are beholden to some of the most recalcitrant and reactionary elements in American politics — at the expense of its citizens in Puerto Rico.

What really worries the Trump administration and some sectors of the Democratic Party is what would happen if Puerto Ricans, again, vote in the upcoming plebiscite by a significant majority in favor of statehood. Of course, with or without the endorsement of the DOJ, the results of the plebiscite are not binding on Congress or self-executing.

The fundamental purpose of the plebiscite is political, not legal. In the 122 years since Puerto Rico has been under the American flag, the opponents of statehood have been able to obstruct this legitimate aspiration in the halls of Congress, with the complicity of all branches of American government.

As a matter of historical record, the people of Puerto Rico have celebrated three plebiscites in the last 22 years. In the 1998 plebiscite “none of the above” prevailed, whatever that meant. In 2012, 54 percent of the electorate voted against the current territorial status, and 61 percent in favor of statehood in the second question. In the 2017 plebiscite, with all status alternatives present, 97 percent voted in favor of statehood, although only 23 percent of registered voters participated. The historical momentum favors statehood.

If democracy is to mean anything, the electoral will of the majority needs to be heard in an up or down vote concerning statehood. Anything else is just political static to avoid confronting the profoundly undemocratic, unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico. Those that oppose statehood can vote no and can rest assured that if they prevail, they will be heard loud and clear by many in Congress. Those that favor statehood can vote yes, and should they prevail, they can begin the difficult task of pressuring Congress to act on its constitutional responsibilities.

This upcoming plebiscite is just one step in a long political process.

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, where he teaches contracts and property courses. He is also an occasional columnist on legal and political issues at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico.

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