In the last six months, a series of incredible developments have shaken the foundation of Washington, DC, the political capital of the world. For the first time in recent memory, each of the three branches of the federal government have spoken, loudly and unequivocally, regarding the matter of the political status of Puerto Rico, a United States territory since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The first domino to fall was the Executive Branch when in January U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued that while Puerto Rico has some level of self-governance and its legislature has the power to pass several laws, the Island is still a territory subject to the plenary powers of Congress.
Then came the Congress, which proceeded with the line pushed by the Obama administration. On June 9, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 5278, better known as PROMESA, a comprehensive bill aimed at establishing an Oversight Board to assist the Government of Puerto Rico, including instrumentalities, in managing its public finances. The bill now moves to the Senate for its discussion.
PROMESA, which was brought about as a result of poor management by the local government, reaffirms Congress’ plenary powers over the Island and its almost 3.6 million American citizens. In a nutshell, the passing of this historic bill accentuated the colonial nature of the political relation that currently exists.
The final nail on the coffin was a couple of landmark Supreme Court decisions. First came the much anticipated ruling regarding the famous Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle case. In its decision, the Nation’s highest court unequivocally concluded that, although the Island may have its own constitution, its own government, its own laws, and its own courts— it is not a true sovereign under the U.S. Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause.
The decision stated that Puerto Rico’s true and only real source of prosecutorial authority is the Congress. In her majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan, concludes that, for double jeopardy purposes, Puerto Rico is not a separate sovereign from the federal government. Again, we are a colony, the world’s oldest one.
The second ruling involved whether or not the local government could have implement bankruptcy on its public corporations. In an historic decision, the Judges reiterated that Puerto Rico is not a State, nor does it have the legal framework to set laws related to bankruptcy procedures, that the Congress do not approve.
The time has come for the White House and Congress to act.
More than two years ago, President Obama assigned $2.5 million for a federal sponsored referendum in Puerto Rico regarding the political status. Nothing have happened since then.
In January 2015, our Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Secretary, Loretta Lynch, stating the need to act on that allocation. Pierluisi has also filed HR 727, an admission bill aimed at granting Puerto Rico statehood accordingly to the will of the people expressed in the 2012 status referendum when the majority of the voters rejected the current colonial status in favor of statehood.
In light of the recent and historic developments in DC, that moment have come for the Congress and the White House to map out a detailed plan to grant Puerto Rico statehood. There are no more excuses, no more delays. There’s no need for another Committee or exploratory group. The three branches of the federal movement have spoken, it’s time for action.
Jose Aponte-Hernandez is a state representative in Puerto Rico and is the former Speaker of the House for the territory.