Public Debt, Political Status to be Key Election Year Issues
SAN JUAN – Aside from the difficulty the administration of Gov. Alejandro García Padilla will continue to face in tackling the fiscal and economic crisis afflicting the island, two issues are likely to become key in this year’s electoral campaign: the payment of the multibillion-dollar public debt and the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, which dates back to July 25, 1898, when the U.S. Army took control over the Caribbean island.
Both issues incite heated debate among the island’s political parties and their official spokespeople, even though the most recent, and oldest, one has unexpectedly resurged in the form of an allegation by the Obama administration before the U.S. Supreme Court stating that Puerto Rico is a territory whose powers reside within the U.S. Congress.
The 43-page document submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice, through its solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, for the criminal case “People of Puerto Rico vs. Sánchez Valle,” argues that the powers over the island belong to the federal Congress and therefore the Puerto Rican government does not enjoy sovereignty nor does the document recognize the commonwealth under the U.S. Constitution.
In the Sánchez Valle case, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled in March that Puerto Rico had no independent sovereignty to judge a person who already judged by the federal court.
In light of said argument, the Puerto Rico Justice Department responded by requesting the U.S. Supreme Court to revise the decision. The court accepted the request for which Verrilli has asked the state court’s decision be ratified.
Reactions in Puerto Rico, particularly from the three main ideological sectors on the island, sprung immediately.
Pro-commonwealth Gov. García Padilla said Puerto Rico is not a mere territory, but one that “enjoys an unparalleled relation [with the U.S.] within the federal constitutional framework.”
He also argued that the statement by the attorney general in this case, aside from being at odds with the Justice Department’s previous arguments, is incorrect and contrary to all jurisprudence recognizing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico a degree of autonomy similar to that of the states.
He also said the U.S. Congress established that position when entering into a pact that was approved by the majority of the people of Puerto Rico when they voted to ratify the Constitution of Puerto Rico in 1952.
“I can anticipate that, the position of the people of Puerto Rico will be validated by the U.S. Supreme court according to its previous decisions. My administration will continue to insist in this position. The U.S. Supreme Court will definitely have to deal with this matter,” the governor said.
Nevertheless, Senate President Eduardo Bhatia, also a commonwealth advocate, was more categorical about Justice’s statement, saying, “It is time to prepare [Puerto Rico] for a change in its relationship with the United States that provides political stability, democratic power to the people and unquestionable dignity,” Bhatia stated.
The Senate president assured he will work fervently in designing a democratic, inclusive and serious process “that guides us through this path and preserves the Puerto Rican nationality that defines us.”
Bhatia also said Justice’s interpretation of Puerto Rico’s political status is “limiting, archaic and dangerous.”
On the other side of the of the debate, Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago stated that Justice’s allegation rules out García Padilla’s argument regarding “the pact” between Puerto Rico and the U.S. as not being able to be changed unilaterally by Congress, emphasizing the contrary, that “Congress never considered surrendering its power over our country.”
“This is colonialism laid bare, without any false democratic modesty, unveiled in all its crudeness by those who hold absolute power over Puerto Rico. The owners of the circus that is the commonwealth have spoken, without even mentioning that the [political] status of inferiority they trumpet before the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected in a democratic election in November 2012,” the pro-independence leader said.
On the other hand, Ricardo Rosselló, one of two New Progressive Party (NPP) gubernatorial hopefuls, celebrated Bhatia’s expressions about changing Puerto Rico’s relation with the U.S. for a more dignified, democratic and stable one.
“Popular Democratic Party leadership reacts surprised now that it has been confronted with the legal reality we live in. Puerto Rico is, since 1952, and continues to be nowadays, a colony. The theory of ‘a pact’ has been exposed as a hoax, as well as all the so-called attempts to ‘improve’ the commonwealth through constitutional status assemblies. Since the beginning, power has been limited to the U.S. Congress,” Rosselló said.
“If, after being confronted with reality, the PDP leadership wants to change the nature of our relation [with the U.S.] but continue to be U.S. citizens in permanent union, the only way is statehood,” Rosselló argued.
“The people are wise, and that’s why they voted against the colony and in favor of statehood in November 2012. The fact that some PDP leaders are now seeing the light and recognizing the indignity of our current political status should be reason to rejoice,” he added.
Meanwhile, Resident Commissioner and NPP gubernatorial hopeful Pedro Pierluisi, the first to react to the matter, considers all persisting illusions about Puerto Rico’s political status must be discarded in light of the island’s economic crisis and the U.S. government’s allegation.
“The U.S. government has rejected PDP leaders’ contention that the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico is ‘a pact’ that the U.S. cannot modify unilaterally,” Pierluisi said.
The resident commissioner recalled that in 2012 Puerto Rico held a referendum in which statehood prevailed and, responding to that vote, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a law authorizing “the first federally sponsored referendum in 117 years of Puerto Rico’s history under the American flag.”
“I support the use of those funds [$2 million] to hold a ‘yes or no’ referendum on whether Puerto Rico should be admitted as another state of the United States,” Pierluisi said.
House Minority Leader Jenniffer González, who is also running as NPP candidate for resident commissioner, stated that the Justice Department’s allegation “validates what we have been saying for decades and the PDP refuses to accept. The federal government is telling us what is evident: The Commonwealth is a colony and does not guarantee American citizenship in a permanent form.”
“It is time for all who cherish our permanent relation with the United States and American citizenship to realize that statehood is the only [political status] to guarantee American citizenship and an inextricable bond, and is the only real plan for Puerto Rico to come out of its economic crisis,” González stated.
Carlos Ignacio Pesquera, the other NPP leader running for resident commissioner, but on Pierluisi’s side, said Justice’s allegation establishes that the U.S. Congress has kept its sovereignty over Puerto Rico unaltered since 1898, when the island changed from a Spanish colony to U.S. colony.
“The concept of a commonwealth and the alleged pact between Puerto Rico and the U.S. are a thing of the past. This [allegation] perfectly coincides with the position statehooders have expressed for decades,” said Pesquera, a former secretary of the Transportation & Public Works Department, adding the opportunity should be taken to end the disadvantageous colonial status once and for all.
On Jan. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing where those involved will present their arguments.