2020 party politics in Puerto Rico

2020 party politics in Puerto Rico
© The Hill photo illustration

In a recent visit to Puerto Rico, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren adds her pronouns to Twitter bio Biden leads, Warren and Sanders tied for second in new poll The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (D-Mass.) declared that with regards to its political status she would favor whatever the people of the island decided. At first reading this statement would seem to defer judgment to the democratic process. No one surely could be against such a reasonable position. This has also been the position adopted by many congressional leaders and presidential hopefuls throughout the past decades.

Behind this aseptic declaration is likely a calculated move which tries, on the one hand, to straddle the political factions which drive insular politics and, on the other hand, avoid any specific commitment concerning Puerto Rico’s status question in her pursuit of her presidential aspirations.

ADVERTISEMENT

The political factions in Puerto Rico group themselves around the issue of its political status. The current administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the Legislative Assembly is controlled by the New Progressive Party, which favors statehood.

The minority Popular Democratic Party is the ideological custodian of the failed territorial model and the tax privileges of vested stateside interests. After the legislation of PROMESA (2016) and the imposition of a Financial Oversight Board to supervise the bankrupt local government, there is no doubt that Puerto Rico is, and has been, nothing other than an unincorporated territory under the plenary powers of Congress.

This current state of affairs has placed the Popular Democratic Party in the untenable position of either coming out in favor of continued territorial unincorporation or independence in any of its recognized forms. This dilemma is at the heart of the Popular Democratic Party woes and is the catalyst to the political aspirations of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who favors independence for Puerto Rico.

Both local parties have ties to the Democratic and Republican Parties, and in each presidential election cycle send their delegates to their respective conventions. The local Republican Party has traditionally been controlled by statehooders. In the recent past, the local Democratic Party had been divided between statehooders and territorialists, which canceled each other out in their lobbying efforts at the national level. Taking to heart the aphorism that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the PPD has continually courted the more extreme members of the Republican Party, stoking their fears of a Hispanic Democratic state. Last year the local Democratic Party elected known statehooders to all official positions.

Typically, during the primary process candidates of both parties come to Puerto Rico looking for support and delegates. Although American citizens in Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential or congressional elections, they do participate in the national party’s respective primaries. This limited participation in the democratic process has led to the inclusion in their respective platforms of language regarding the political future of Puerto Rico.

The Democratic Party included in its 2016 platform that it believes “that the people of Puerto Rico should determine their ultimate political status from permanent options that do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States.” The Republican Party declared that it supported “the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state” and recognized the historic significance of the 2012 local referendum in which statehood prevailed. With some notable exceptions, once in Congress most politicians choose to ignore their party’s platform commitments, failing to legislate either a statehood admission bill, a “statehood yes or no” plebiscite or any other process.

For example, in 2014 Congress delegated on the Department of Justice to supervise the confection of a ballot for a local non-binding plebiscite with constitutionally valid alternatives. This process was short circuited by the Trump administration in 2017 and even now is used as political cover to justify congressional inaction.   

Given the growing importance of the Hispanic vote and the identity politics that drives much of the current national debate, the Puerto Rican vote suddenly has a larger role to play. The recent 2018 mid-term election of Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) over then incumbent Democrat Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDemocrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA MORE, with the support of the Florida’s Puerto Rican vote is a clear sign of its importance in the national stage. Scott favors statehood for Puerto Rico, while Nelson favored a position similar to the one adopted by Warren.

It is in this context that Warren’s statements on Puerto Rico need to be understood. It is not enough to come to Puerto Rico and make generic statements of support for self-determination and make rhetorical flourishes on the cruelty of the federal government on its handling of the debt crisis and hurricane recuperation efforts. As a sitting senator — although in the minority — she can join efforts to introduce federal legislation that addresses Puerto Rico’s political status.

ADVERTISEMENT

To argue that the ultimate decision on Puerto Rico’s political future rests with the American citizens in Puerto Rico conveniently ignores that it is Congress who has jurisdiction and responsibility for the territory of Puerto Rico. As the Supreme Court made abundantly clear in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle (2016), Puerto Rico lacks original sovereignty under our Constitution and depends on congressional leadership to solve the status question.

As the historical record shows, the various factions that compose the island’s political spectrum have and will try to undercut each other’s initiatives at every turn. To expect a consensus on this matter is naive at best, and Machiavellian at worst. Any politician that claims to favor whatever the people of Puerto Rico decide, while failing to take specific actions to address the issue, is just kicking the can down the road for personal political advantage. In the upcoming presidential electoral cycle Puerto Rico’s Republican and Democrat delegates need to hold their candidates to answer. 

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico,. where he teaches contracts and property courses. He is also an occasional columnist on legal and political issues at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico