Puerto Rico: Statehood as equality
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The results of the June 11, 2017 Puerto Rico status plebiscite, and their various interpretations, underline the political tension in each of the competing political sectors in the island and their respective visions for the future.

For those that favor statehood, the results are a clear and decisive ratification of the 2012 plebiscite, which then rejected our continued territorial status and favored statehood by 61 percent of the vote.


Notwithstanding the electoral abstention strategy promoted by the territorial supporters in this latest process, and an electoral turnout of 22 percent of the bloated electoral list, 97 percent of participating voters were in favor of statehood In electoral politics the votes that are casted are the ones that count is a truism that needs to be recalled. Moreover, the plebiscite ballot was prepared taking in consideration the recommendations as proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice in its April 21, 2017 letter as to the various status options.

The fact that a politically embattled Department of Justice - for other well known reasons - did not give its final blessings to the ballot language should not be construed as opposition to the plebiscite.    

Although the plebiscite is not legally binding on Congress, it is nevertheless of political importance. As in all political processes there is a degree of uncertainty as to future developments, especially in the highly polarized atmosphere in Washington, D.C. and the unfolding litigation with Puerto Rico bondholders and other creditors.

The furtherance of the political rights of the 3.5 million of U.S. citizens requires that the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico insert itself in the national political discussion. The timely expressions of support in favor of statehood by various congressmen and senators from Florida, Texas, New Mexico and New York are indicative of the importance of the Hispanic vote for the 2018 mid-term election.

In this wider context, the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico is fundamentally an issue of legal and political equality. It is always pertinent to remind Congress that Puerto Rico became a United States territory as a direct result of the Spanish American War of 1898. In the infamous insular cases the U.S. Supreme Court ruled early in the twentieth century that Puerto Rico “belonged to but was not a part of the United States”, creating out of thin academic air the theory of non-incorporated territories.

Notwithstanding the fact that in 1917 Puerto Ricans were granted United States citizenship by the Jones Act, the Supreme Court reiterated that this did not imply the incorporation of the territory of Puerto Rico. To this day, as the Bush (2007) and Obama (2011) White House Reports on Puerto Rico state; as the Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle (2016), and as the enactment by Congress of PROMESA (2016) attest; Puerto Rico is still after 119 years a non-incorporated territory under the plenary powers of Congress, as provided by Art. IV, Section of the Constitution.

Much has transpired in those 119 years: Puerto Ricans have been fighting and dying in the armed forces since World War I; over 5 million Puerto Ricans or of Puerto Rican descent live in the mainland, the relative success of the civil rights movement during the last decades and the socio-cultural and demographic changes that have dramatically and decisively altered the political landscape in Puerto Rico and in the United States.

Notwithstanding the surely forthcoming lobbying efforts by statehood opponents and the defenders of their tax exemption privileges, the plebiscite marks a paradigm shift on the status issue for Puerto Rico. From now on the debate about the political status needs to leave behind the dead end alternative of independence and the red herring of free association.

In this regard, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez’s proposed bill on a federally-mandated plebiscite “Statehood, yes or no” is a step in the right and necessary direction. It is time for Congress to discharge its Constitutional responsibilities to dispose of the territory.

Andrés L. Córdova is a professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Law.

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