A week after a plebiscite in which an overwhelming 97 percent of Puerto Rico voters chose statehood, the island is no closer to changing its political status, much less becoming the 51st state.
Islanders and the sizable Florida diaspora were atwitter about the vote. Then an embarrassing 23 percent of voters cast a ballot in latrge part because political factions either ignored the plebiscite or called for a boycott of the election. “Spend the day at the beach,” many detractors recommended.
Apparently, many people did just that, for the voter participation was the lowest electoral turnout in Puerto Rico, an island whose voter participation is historically high, compared with the United States and the world, reaching 93 percent in 1920 but more recently falling to 78 percent, an indication of a broader problem: Puerto Rican voters are tired of plebiscites – this is the fifth one since 1967 with the last four coming since the 1990s.
Jockeying for Advantage
Here’s the problem – All have been non-binding plebiscites, meaning Congress, which has full authority over Puerto Rico which it considers a territory, has not committed to stand by the results. All the plebiscites have been pushed by the pro-statehood New Progressive Party nearly each time it gains power. (In the late 1980s the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party attempted a plebiscite but the process collapsed.)
More important, jockeying for political advantage has often led to big mistakes, starting with the prejudicial title of the recent plebiscite. “Plebiscite for the Immediate Decolonization of Puerto Rico”? In fact, the original ballot didn’t even include the current commonwealth status, generating a federal Department of Justice letter dated April stating that commonwealth had to be included and, further, it could not recommend the plebiscite to Congress.
“The Department has concluded that the plebiscite ballot … is not drafted in a way that ensures that its results will accurately reflect the current popular will of the Puerto Rican people,” the Justice Department wrote.
It was rich for the United States to call for inclusion of commonwealth whose limitations are at the root of many of Puerto Rico’s political, social and economic problems. But Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, at first indignant, quickly backed down and included commonwealth, perhaps because $2.5 million in federal funding for the plebiscite was at stake.
But the damage had been done. The Justice Department also took issue with vague and misleading definitions of statehood, commonwealth and free association/independence that promised more than the United States is able – or willing – to deliver. It has yet to release the funds, forcing the island, in the midst of its worse economic crisis to date, to spend over $5 million for what Puerto Ricans traditionally have called “a beauty contest,” a plebiscite with no political or policy weight.
Still, after the plebiscite Rosselló and U.S. Cong. Don Young (R-Alaska), a long time member of the House Resources Committee that oversees Puerto Rico; and Orlando Cong. Darren Soto (D-Dist. 9) , among others, began a push to sell the results to Congress. Young and Soto were official observers of the election.
Inexplicably, Soto and Cong. Stephanie Murphy (D-Dist. 7), representing a swath of the over 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida’s diaspora, stand by the flawed results. Murphy said “the ballot was fair.” But in taking sides in the status debate, Murphy and Soto risk ticking off about half of Puerto Rican voters, here and on the island, who do not support statehood.
At the same time, Peter Vivaldi of Standing for Puerto Rico in Central Florida called for President Donald Trump and Congress “to act on behalf of the 3.5 million American citizens living on the island” in a press conference at the offices of lawyer Anthony Suárez in Orlando.
The fault of Puerto Rico plebiscites does not lie only with the statehood push for the 51st star. Each Congress faces a steep learning curve when it comes to Puerto Rico, a part of the United States since 1898, when it became booty of the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War. For many Puerto Ricans, myself included, it is personally painful to hear elected officials and regular citizens speak of Puerto Rico with great ignorance.
In a series of infamous U.S. Supreme Court cases shortly thereafter Puerto Rico was tethered to discriminatory policies, many of which still stand today, most notably that Puerto Rico’s territorial status is not a path to statehood. Plus, certain federal laws require the island to use only U.S. shipping companies at great cost to island residents and have created discriminatory funding formulas regarding health care costs, to name just a few areas which Congress has shown little will to revisit. (See the bipartisan “Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico” report dated December 2016 to which Florida’s Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio signed on.)
A great financial crisis caused by $72 billion in debt – a chunk of which is an outcome of Puerto Rico’s profligate ways – is still unfolding, with many tremors still to be felt as a Congress-imposed fiscal oversight board continues to cut budgets.
Waiting for ‘Brown’
Puerto Rico still awaits its “Brown vs Board of Education” day in court to liberate the island from the shackles of 119 years of discriminatory government policy, in the same way that the United States Supreme Court stated in Brown that “separate but equal” treatment of African Americans was unconstitutional.
It’s time. “Puerto Rico has been used as a political tool for over 100 years,” Vivaldi said.
To paraphrase Sojourner Truth, aren’t Puerto Ricans citizens too?
˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor