Full equality for US citizens in Puerto Rico

The article “Make Puerto Rico the 51st State” by Dr. Jose M Saldaña, published last Friday in your blog section, is a stark reminder that there are 3.6 million U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico who do not have equal protection by the U.S. Constitution and who do not have the same rights and opportunities as other American citizens in the 50 states.

During the past few months, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has been actively involved with the issue of “resolving the status of Puerto Rico.” Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sent a letter to the presidents of Puerto Rico’s three political parties, following up on the hearing that the Committee held last August which reaffirms that the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico rejected their current territorial status.  It was an accurate and powerful reminder to the political leaders and people on the island that Congress did hear the collective expression of voters, and that it cannot be ignored.

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Furthermore, their statements emphasizing that non-viable status options such as “enhanced commonwealth” should not be considered in any future formal process to determine the Island’s political status is also a very powerful pronouncement. It helps both political leaders and voters on the Island understand that efforts to resolve the political status issue should only contemplate constitutional realistic and viable options and that the demagoguery of those who continue to promote fantasies as alternatives to the now indisputably delegitimized territory status will not be accepted. These statements contribute to the further clarification of the political status debate. We are grateful that the senators have publicly expressed the truth.

Beyond clarifying the options available to Puerto Rico, the letter statements during the hearing last August serve to refute the arguments espoused by the opponents of change in Puerto Rico, who continue to try to impose their discredited perspective contrary to the democratic will of the majority of voters.

The root of the argument against the November 2012 plebiscite can be traced directly to the Popular Democratic Party’s (PDP) governing board resolution, dated February 11, 2012. That resolution clearly exposes the PDP’s fundamentally flawed logic for opposing the plebiscite. It wrongly asserts that the current “Commonwealth” status was not in the ballot, because in the PDP’s view, “the Commonwealth is not and should not be subject to the plenary powers of the U.S. Congress.”

Unfortunately, this perspective fails to accept the territorial nature of Puerto Rico’s current status which makes the Island subject to the authority of Congress under Article IV Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, opposition to the plebiscite or arguments questioning the validity of its results on that basis are invalid.  

The PDP resolution tries to further rationalize their opposition to the plebiscite and its results, stating that the ballot did not include “enhanced Commonwealth.” However, as the Committee’s letter clearly pronounced: “non-viable status options such as the ‘enhanced commonwealth’ should not be considered, as they confuse the debate and undermine efforts to resolve this issue.” Consequently, this PDP argument, which served as a basis for their opposition to the plebiscite before it was carried out, as the sole basis for that party’s call for voters to leave the second question blank as a so-called form of “protest,” and as the basis for arguing that the official results of the second question in the plebiscite are invalid because of those very same blank answers to the second question, is not just baseless but completely deceptive.

Besides, our electoral statute in Puerto Rico establishes that blank votes are not valid and should not be counted in favor of any candidate or proposal. Secondly, both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Puerto Rico Supreme Court have upheld that blank ballots are not valid and should not be credited for any position or candidate or even taken into consideration in any determination of a majority. Additionally, the PDP never adopted the position that the votes should be cast blank. The PDP president and other leaders stated that they personally favored that position and at the same time other leaders stated the opposite. The PDP never campaigned for that position.

For informed observers of this debate, the letter to the presidents of the three political parties un Puerto Rico, directly refutes the core argument that the PDP employs to try to dismiss the official plebiscite results. The only rational and coherent interpretation of the results of the plebiscite is that a majority of voters in Puerto Rico oppose the current territorial condition, that among the only three valid and viable alternatives statehood has the most support, and that there is more support for statehood than for the current territorial status. What this means is that the only clear mandate in favor of changing Puerto Rico’s political status is for statehood.

Being the leaders of the committee that holds sole jurisdiction over this issue, this historic letter demonstrates a serious and sincere will to move this debate forward. I urge Sens. Wyden and Murkowski to use their power to initiate legislative action. As president of “Igualdad" I petition the Committee to introduce a companion bill to H.R. 2000 or a similar bill that directly responds to the results of Puerto Rico’s political status plebiscite and provides a process to end our current territory status by opening the path to full equality within our American democracy for the 3.6 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico. 

Padilla is the former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the current president of Igualdad, a nonpartisan organization that favors statehood for PR.

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