Puerto Rico Paradox: Colonialism & Voting

During the last two weeks of the 2016 gubernatorial race in Puerto Rico, then-candidate Ricardo Roselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) pulled out all the stops. With his lead in the polls narrowing, he rallied his base by focusing his message on the promise of statehood for Puerto Rico. All of a sudden, the economic problems and the impending austerity measures vanished, there was no need for solid economic proposals to solve the crisis, and the 118 years of US disdain towards the island were forgotten. Campaign signs promising $10 billion worth of federal aid flooded the streets and Roselló swore to be the last governor of the Estado Libre Asociado (Commonwealth) of Puerto Rico. 

The political history of Puerto Rico has had no shortage of far-fetched promises. Although promising statehood may have won Roselló the election, he will have a tougher time trying to convince the federal government. 

No Commonwealth, No Vote

Shortly after the 2016 election, Roselló vowed to use $2.5 million, allocated in the 2014 Federal Appropriations Act, to arrange another consultation on the political status of the island. On February 3, 2017, the governor signed Law 7 of 2017, better known as “Law for the Immediate Decolonization of Puerto Rico,” which was approved by a party line vote. The Puerto Rican Electoral Commission was then entrusted with the responsibility of organizing a status referendum to take place on June 11 of this year. Unlike the first four status referenda in 1967, 1993, 1998, and 2012, which included the option to retain the current Commonwealth status, the proposed referendum would present a choice between only statehood or sovereignty. 

The decision to omit the Commonwealth option from the June 11 vote stirred controversy from the very beginning, as the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, branded it as anti-democratic. Despite the necessity of inclusive legislation for solving the status issue, the NPP did not devote more than a week to discussion to the Immediate Decolonization bill. It also did not look to include the opposition in the process. Many PDP leaders saw the referendum as a political ploy to drive a wedge between that party’s fragile coalition joining pro-Commonwealth and pro-sovereignty voters. This one-sided approach to the status issue might have seemed like bold politics at first, but now it is increasingly looking like a massive miscalculation from those pushing for statehood. 

Despite the electoral victory that the governor’s party achieved in November, questions linger regarding the validity of this referendum. For one, some argue that his 41.7 percent vote-total in the election— the lowest for any governor in Puerto Rico’s history—did not constitute a mandate for a status consultation but was instead the consequence of discontentedness towards the previous government’s handling of the economic crisis. 

Others argue that the status issue is not a priority at this particular moment, since the economic crisis is having a much greater impact on the lives of Puerto Ricans. With this crisis looming, attempting another revision to the status quo seems futile in the grand scheme of things. Even if the general population were to agree on a status change, the conditions for statehood would not be acceptable to the US federal government, especially with the Republican Party in control of the White House and both houses of Congress. While sovereignty, which still has not reached the same levels of mass appeal as statehood has, would still require initial support from the federal government. To surmount the crisis and join the community of nations, Puerto Rico would need to restructure its debt, stimulate the economy, and secure some sort of citizenship pact with the US. 

More importantly, the omission of the Commonwealth option from the status referendum had been broadly criticized by public figures in both Puerto Rico and the United States. Not only has the consultation been branded as anti-democratic in nature, but, more importantly from the US perspective, statehood is by no means an option that the United States is willing to offer. However, Roselló and his pro-statehood allies have argued that the 2012 referendum, which produced a 52 to 48 percent result against the status quo, was sufficient justification to omit the Commonwealth status as an option. Despite its advocating for statehood, the NPP chose to ignore warnings about the referendum process from the same federal officials that would have a say in allowing Puerto Rican statehood. 

On April 5, the Roselló administration’s hubris finally caught up with it when eight Republican senators expressed concerns about the referendum process in a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In an uncharacteristic alignment with right-wing American senators, a significant faction of the Popular Democratic Party advocated that no consideration be given to the more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans that support the current Commonwealth status. 

Following declarations to counter the eight Republican senators from the Resident Commissioner Jennifer González—the non-voting member that “represents” the island in Congress—the Justice Department stepped in to deliver what the Popular Democratic Party argues is the death blow to the June 11 referendum. 

On April 13, the Justice Department stated that, as the current legislation stands, “multiple considerations preclude it from notifying Congress that it approves of the plebiscite and obligating funds.” Furthermore, beyond affirming the Trump Administration’s support for the current Commonwealth status, the department even threw the pro-status quo faction a bone. By affirming that “Puerto Rico has an unconditional statutory right to birthright citizenship,” the Justice Department allayed fears that the Trump administration may move to revoke the 1917 Jones Act that extended birthright citizenship to Puerto Ricans. In sum, it made explicit the Trump administration’s intention of maintaining the status quo in Puerto Rico. 

Even if a majority of citizens does oppose the current status, attempting to eliminate it as an option without federal approval has proven to be a mistake. If anything, the political musings of the pro-statehood Roselló administration may have actually given new life to the Commonwealth status. Although the current status has been discredited by the ongoing economic crisis, without the explicit backing of the federal government and the possibility of a binding result, an effective decolonization process is irresponsible; while the Roselló administration’s irresolute response to the Justice Department accentuates the inability of the island’s domestic government to have any meaningful impact in the decolonization discussion. 

The Unbreakable Status Quo

Since the United States acquired Puerto Rico through the 1898 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War, the status issue has been at the center of Puerto Rico’s political discussions. Annexation was initially the goal among political elites, but opposition quickly grew as it became evident that the United States had no interest in incorporating Puerto Rico as a state. In the decades that followed, the Union Party, which sought to include all status options in one party, dominated politics until the Great Depression. The economic consequences suffered by the island quickly gave rise to the Nationalist Party and the Popular Democratic Party, both of which sought to establish Puerto Rico as a sovereign nation despite different programmatic approaches. 

In 1952, following the United Nations’ push for decolonization, Puerto Rico was allowed a degree of home-rule under its Commonwealth status. Yet, although Puerto Rico was allowed to craft its domestic laws, it still remains classified under the Territorial Clause of the US Constitution, which grants Congress discretionary power over the island. Although the UN removed the island from the list of colonial territories, Puerto Rico continues to exist in a de jure political limbo. Puerto Rico cannot engage directly with other countries or belong to any international institutions, but neither has it received any indication that a path for statehood will ever be made available. 

Until 1991, Puerto Rico, as a democratic and economic enclave in the ideological trenches of the Cold War, proved a clear asset to the United States. The new millennium has not done Puerto Rico any favors: the current debt crisis has not only made decolonization—whether by statehood or by sovereignty— more costly than ever, but has also made it less politically feasible due to the polarization in US politics. 

Paradoxically, the debt crisis has actually entrenched the current status quo. In the context of sovereign debt restructuring, Puerto Rico has been denied access to international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, which provides a means of acquiring liquidity. Furthermore, the island’s colonial status precludes it from benefiting from federal economic stabilizers or accessing the bankruptcy protections available to a municipality under Title IX of the federal bankruptcy code. 

This lack of viable solutions has further entrenched the island’s colonial status by way of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), approved last June This bipartisan legislation, installed a federally-sanctioned Fiscal Control Board with the authority to set Puert o Rico’s budgets and dictate economic policy. With a $73 billion worth of debt still to pay, and the Control Board the only available alternative to restructuring that debt, the Commonwealth status seems likely to remain unchanged for the time being. 

With the Justice Department’s recent comments against the referendum, the decolonization process has suffered a political blow that highlights the historical and economic obstacles that have made colonialism so tenable in Puerto Rico. 

The Imperative of Inclusive Decolonization

By pushing a divisive process of decolonization with rather dubious political objectives, the Roselló administration is effectively entrenching the colonial status it had pledged to end. This will not only make future decolonization efforts more difficult but may also cost the administration furtherdown the line, as it seeks to impose a series of unpopular austerity measures. 

In light of the letter from the Justice Department, the status consult’s future has come into question. If no changes are made to the referendum, the local government will be forced to use its own funds to conduct a status referendum with the choice between statehood and sovereignty—a move which would make the referendum broadly unpopular. Given the current debt crisis, devoting money to a consultation would be seen as diversion of vital funds from more important causes, such as healthcare and education. 

On the other hand, an agreement to include the Commonwealth status on the ballot, could also have potentially adverse effects. To begin with, the referendum would not be a binding consultation of the Puerto Rican people. Much like the last referendum, it would be nothing more than a state-sponsored poll on the issue. 

In 2012, 44.3 percent of people favored statehood, 28.1 percent favored any form of sovereignty, be it free association or independence, and 27.6 percent left their ballot blank as a protest vote in favor of Puerto Rico’s remaining a Commonwealth. If all political groupings contest the upcoming referendum, similar results are likely - meaning that statehood would gain a simple majority but would struggle to receive a convincing absolute majority with more voters in favor of the Commonwealth and sovereignty options combined. 

A divided vote would allow the United States, once again, to ignore the referendum, just as it did in 2012. Using the justification that no binding federal action will be undertaken until Puerto Ricans reach a consensus, the Trump administration could furnish another rubber stamp for the United States’ neglect of Puerto Rico. 

Recent developments seem to point to a likely boycott and perhaps even a cancellation of the referendum. With the Roselló administration adjusting for amendments to the Immediate Decolonization Act to include the territorial Commonwealth status, the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the Popular Democratic Party have vowed to boycott the referendum. With low turnout expected and an increasingly illegitimate status consult, a cancellation of the June 11 referendum, could well be in the cards if the Justice Department opts to restrict funding. This would be a marked defeat for the Roselló administration. Considering the context of the economic crisis, this scenario would perpetuate the notion that the status issue is a secondary priority. 

With no clear domestic consensus regarding the future of Puerto Rico’s political status, institutionalized dialogue is imperative for an eventual solution to the island’s colonial situation. Today, too much depends on the United States. As of now, the United States would rather maintain Puerto Rico as a colonial territory than add a new state or sponsor a sovereign Puerto Rican state. Moreover, the United States has not articulated the conditions for any of the decolonization options available. The power and information asymmetry between the United States and Puerto Rico is too severe for the people of Puerto Rico to effectively determine their future. 

For quite some time, the concept of a Constitutional Assembly for the purposes of decolonization has been discussed. The Assembly would gather political leaders, experts, and citizens in an inclusive process to codify each status option, would consult the federal government about each option, and would eventually produce a binding referendum. The Popular Democratic Party included this idea in its platform in 2012 but never put forth any significant efforts to make the Assembly a reality. While the New Progressive Party, in its frenzied pursuit of statehood has outright ignored this option to push their agenda. 

As both parties continue to clash over Puerto Rico’s path forward, an inclusive decolonization process remains out of reach. Until all factions decide to come to the table and negotiate, colonialism will be increasingly entrenched after each referendum.