Puerto Rico and the right to self-determination of the USA

In my prior op-ed (“Statehood for Puerto Rico; an insane proposition,” published on Jan. 12, 2017) I stated that, “statehood is also an issue of self-determination for the United States. We are talking about the transformation from what the U.S. has been throughout its history, a nation-state, into a multi-national state”.  Well, the self-determination issue for the U.S. might be at the doors of Congress, the federal government, and the American people sooner than anyone expected.

The governor of Puerto Rico has just signed a law calling for another plebiscite. This Puerto Rican law invokes a disposition requested by the Obama administration and included in the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act authorizing $2,500,000 for the U.S. Department of Justice to fund an “objective, nonpartisan voter education about, and a plebiscite on, options that would resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status”. For the funds to be obligated, the Attorney General (AG) must make a finding “that the voter education materials, plebiscite ballot, and related materials are not incompatible with the Constitution and laws and policies of the United States."

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This law has many constitutional and legal issues that must be addressed by the AG and Congress.  First, the ballot was designed to guarantee a vote for statehood in a clearly rigged process. This is accomplished by excluding from the ballot any of the known alternatives of Commonwealth status that have been supported by hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican voters.  By disenfranchising these voters, the pro-statehood government is predetermining the results of the plebiscite – an overwhelming majority for statehood – since only a small minority of Puerto Ricans support independence.

In addition, the definition of statehood included in the ballot interferes directly with the policies of the United States. Puerto Rico, sociologically is a nation. We have our own rich culture, identity and almost everyone’s first language is Spanish. Kids in Puerto Rico are taught in school that Cristobal Colón, not Christopher Columbus, discovered the Island, and that the first president of the U.S. was Jorge Washington. And if you are visiting Puerto Rico or even living there and for any reason must go to court, the trial or any legal proceeding will be in Spanish. We also have our own Olympic team, which competes against the U.S.  Those are unequivocal signs of national identity.

But the definition of statehood that Puerto Ricans will have in their hands next June 11 says nothing about what will happen to our language. Moreover, the leaders of the statehood movement have repeatedly told our people that nothing will change. They have even insinuated that the Olympics comes from a private entity and that we will keep our separate representation under statehood. In an attempt to clarify to the people of Puerto Rico the real consequences of a vote for statehood, an amendment was introduced during the legislative process saying that vote for statehood, “means my support of local courts and public schools will be in English …; I am aware that my vote requesting Statehood means that I support Puerto Rico no longer having its separate Olympic Committee ...”.  The amendment was defeated by the pro-statehood party, implying the contrary will be the reality under statehood.

The AG and Congress should decide, before the vote takes place, if the rejection of this amendment complies with the policies of the U.S. Historically, Congress has demanded that states wishing to be admitted to the Union with different prevailing linguistic groups, such as Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Louisiana, adhere to certain English-speaking guidelines. When the first three of these states were going to be admitted, Congress established that the state system of public schools, “shall always be conducted in English”. Likewise, Louisiana’s Enabling Act states that: “… the laws which such state may pass shall be promulgated and its records of every description shall be preserved, and its judicial and legislative written proceedings conducted in the language in which the laws and the judicial and legislative written proceedings of the United States are now published and conducted…”.

We are not talking here about bilingualism, we are all for it. We are talking about whether the U.S. is willing to have a state where the school system will be completely in Spanish (and English will continue to be taught as a second language), and where you will be tried in Spanish in state courts. If the answer to that question is yes, that means the U.S. is ready to become a multi-national state, like Spain, Great Britain and Canada. That question needs to be answered by the U.S government before we vote. Regardless of the answer, will the American people be willing to admit a state through a rigged process where the true will of the people is called into question? After all, statehood for Puerto Rico is also an issue of self-determination for the U.S. as well.

Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá was governor of Puerto Rico (2005-08) and Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in Congress (2001-04).


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.