The sovereignty question for Puerto Rico
© Greg Nash

During his recent visit to Puerto Rico, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, suggested that statehood for Puerto Rico is nowhere to be found in the committee’s upcoming agenda. Grijalva’s statement came in the wake of the committee’s oversight trip to the island. That statehood for Puerto Rico is not in the cards in Washington is obvious for a multitude of reasons. What is more surprising, however, is Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s reaction to Grijalva’s statement. 

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In lambasting Grijalva’s alleged double standard for openly supporting statehood for D.C. while denying it to Puerto Rico, Rosselló engages in an open effort to mislead Congress. Simply put, Puerto Rico is not the District of Columbia, and Rosselló knows it full well. 

Puerto Rico is a nation, sociologically speaking, with its own distinct history, language, culture and identity – constitutive elements of a nationality that predates, by over two centuries, the founding of the District. Not surprisingly, statehood has never commanded in Puerto Rico the level of public approval it has historically garnered in the District. 

Different from the District, where there is no appetite for acceding to sovereignty (with capital “s”), in Puerto Rico there is a robust proportion of the eligible voters who would reject statehood if faced with the options of either an enhanced Commonwealth or a well-rounded free association arrangement. 

The numbers speak for themselves. In November 2012, there were more voters opposing statehood than supporting it – if the numbers for ELA “soberano” (sovereign commonwealth) and independence were added to the blank ballots – at 834,191 to 1,028,267. More recently, in June 2017, faced with a heavily biased pro-statehood referendum, 76.77 percent of the eligible voters boycotted that year’s plebiscite, lending statehood a pyrrhic victory without any legitimacy in Washington.  

If, as is all too apparent, the political branches in Washington are in total opposition to statehood and statehood is not the unanimous choice of Puerto Ricans, then the disentangling of this Gordian knot requires engaging in a good faith effort to define the metes and bounds of a sovereign formula for Puerto Rico. 

Thus, the time is ripe for Grijalva’s Committee on Natural Resources to take a serious look at sovereignty. Answering the following questions would be a step in the right direction. Firstly, what would Puerto Rico’s transition to free association or independence look like in terms of economic, security and defense policies? Secondly – bearing in mind that Puerto Ricans (contrary to the inhabitants of Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the American Samoa) are currently U.S. citizens by birth – how does the committee propose addressing the issue of citizenship under a sovereignty arrangement? How does the dual and/or reciprocal citizenship arrangement fit into the committee’s policy calculus? Thirdly, is the committee willing to work side-by-side with a constitutional convention duly elected by the people of Puerto Rico?

These are only a handful of very seminal questions the Resources Committee must finally answer if it is really committed to doing right by Puerto Rico.

Rafael Cox Alomar is associate professor of University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.