Two competing Puerto Rico bills show two different sides


Here we go again.

The U.S. Senate is gearing up to debate yet another status bill for Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rico Status Act (S.3231) would give island residents a choice among three, non-territorial options: statehood, independence, and sovereignty in free association with the United States.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker opposes S.3231. He has introduced a different version of the Puerto Rico Status Act (S.2944), which contains four status options including the discredited choice of commonwealth.

“Pending legislative proposals from my colleagues do not acknowledge the fact that many Puerto Ricans prefer to maintain their current status (commonwealth) and want the freedom to decide on their own terms,” Wicker said.

By introducing a status bill with four alternatives, Wicker has revived the controversy associated with the competing definitions of the status known as “commonwealth.” The term “commonwealth” has been used as a euphemistic label to hide the reality of Puerto Rico’s unequal and undemocratic status as a territory of the United States.

In Harris v. Rosario, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress may treat Puerto Rico differently than it does a state “as long as there is a rational basis for its actions.”

This has produced years of discriminatory treatment by Congress in the budget allocations made to the Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs on the island.

Wicker claims that the status act with only three non-territorial options disenfranchises Puerto Rican votes because it omits the “commonwealth” option from consideration. But supporters of commonwealth fail to acknowledge the daily suffering produced by the island’s unequal and undemocratic status as a U.S. territory.

A national coalition of Puerto Rican leaders oppose the three-option Puerto Rico Status Act for different reasons, according to the New York City-based convener Power 4 Puerto Rico. In a letter sent to all 50 members of the U.S. Senate, the coalition said that “any bill that purports to decolonize Puerto Rico must disclose the real-world implications of becoming a state or independent country, including what the transition to federal taxation would look like.”

With 50 states here and roughly 200 countries across the globe, there is no dearth of details showing how statehood, independence, language and taxation will impact the lives of real people.

There are also 50 different precedents showing the way.

The rules governing the language spoken in a new state of Puerto Rico are proscribed by the 10th Amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

States can determine for themselves what, if any, official languages will formally be adopted as a matter of official policy. The federal government is prohibited from mandating an official language for any state.

In admitting new states, Congress must abide by the “equal footing” doctrine of the Constitution. That means that a new state may exercise all the powers of government belonging to all the other states upon admission.

All of the questions asked by opponents of the three-status option Puerto Status Act like Power 4 Puerto Rico have all been answered by the Constitution and policy briefs published by the Congressional Research Service.

Congress, the White House and the federal courts have long recognized that there are only two status options that end the ambiguity of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States: statehood and independence.

Over more than 125 years of possession by the United States, Puerto Rico’s plebiscite votes have been plagued by disagreements over the meaning of “commonwealth.” An honest, fair, open and transparent self-determination process should only include those status options that produce permanent decolonization through statehood or independence.

“The goal and responsibility of Congress is not to promote statehood, independence or continued territory status for Puerto Rico,” concluded a senate report on political status, “but to facilitate informed self-determination regarding the legal framework and status options to be used for that decision.”

Gene Roman