PR status plebiscite in Obama budget
The funds would be appropriated to the Department of Justice to be granted to the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission. The monies could be used after the attorney general has found a commission plan that includes education materials and ballot options to be consistent with the Constitution and basic laws and policies of the United States.
The commission would have equal representation from each of Puerto Rico’s political parties, with a president appointed by the Gov. Alejandro García Padilla governor. For a status plebiscite under local law last November, the membership was increased to include representatives of each of status option.
García Padilla first took to Twitter to laud the White House move on Wednesday, calling it a “fair process for commonwealth supporters, statehooders and independentistas”that “doesn’t play favorites.”
“I think this what President Barack Obama did today is extraordinary,” the governor said in an interview later Wednesday. “It is a step to meeting his promise to Puerto Rico.”
The governor said that the White House action points to the “pointlessness” of last November’s election day status vote in Puerto Rico.
“I don’t want to put words in the White House’s mouth, but it is clear that a fair plebiscite is a must,” García Padilla told a Spanish-language daily. “I have maintained that the results of the last plebiscite are worthless.”
Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi interpreted the budget language as a big blow to the current commonwealth status and touted the funding as a huge step toward validating the results of the November status referendum.
“This is a historic day for all of us who have fought for equality and justice for Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi said.
Other members of Congress welcomed the development.
“I am pleased that the president’s budget has prioritized funding for a referendum on permanent and Constitutional status options for Puerto Rico. No one should object to a process that leads to a definitive statement by the Puerto Rican people on their future status—and a process that asks them to choose among only constitutionally-viable, non-colonial options,” said Bronx Democrat Rep. José Serrano, one of four stateside Puerto Ricans in Congress.
“I am pleased that President Obama has included in his budget a request to conduct the first federally-sponsored status vote in Puerto Rico’s history, responding to the November plebiscite held in Puerto Rico where voters rejected the current territory status and expressed a desire for statehood,” said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip.
“I fully support President Obama’s request for a $2.5 million appropriation to conduct a federally-sponsored political status vote in Puerto Rico, which would be the first in the territory’s history and which I hope will finally bring resolution to this longstanding issue,” said Massachussetts Rep. Edward Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, which covers Puerto Rico issues. “The president’s request is an appropriate response to the interest that a majority of the U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico have expressed about the desirability of changing their island’s current political status.
Pierluisi, the island’s sole representative in Congress and president of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party, has been pushing in Washington for the U.S. government honor the results of last November’s status referendum.
“The White House recognizes that the majority of the American citizens of Puerto Rico revoked their consent to maintain the current territorial status on Nov. 6,” Pierluisi said Wednesday.
In the first question of November’s two-part referendum, 54 percent of voters said they were not content with the current commonwealth status.
The second question asked what status was preferred. Of the about 1.3 million voters who made a choice, nearly 800,000 supported statehood, some 437,000 backed sovereign free association and 72,560 chose independence. But nearly 500,000 left that question blank.
The White House has said “the results were clear, the people of Puerto Rico want the issue of status resolved, and a majority chose statehood in the second question.”
“Now is the time for Congress to act and the administration will work with them on that effort so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future,” reads a statement by the White House issued in early December.
The Puerto Rican Independence Party and NPP maintain that the results of the two-step plebiscite represent a clear rejection of the continuation of the current territorial status. Those voting “no” included statehood supporters, as well as advocates of independence and free association.
García Padilla and his commonwealth Popular Democratic Party argue the ballot was rigged against the current status and that the empty ballots represent a protest against commonwealth’s exclusion from the second question. He had pledged to hold a constituent assembly on the status issue in 2014 if a congressionally binding plebiscite was not held.
Pierluisi pledged to keep pushing for a non-territorial resolution.
“The president’s language is clear. This federally sponsored plebiscite process can only be undertaken among options that resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status,” Pierluisi said. “It is clear that Puerto Rico can’t solve its future status by maintaining the undemocratic, undignified and territorial status have we have endured for 115 years.”
The only way to resolve status is through statehood, independence or sovereign free association with the U.S., according to the resident commissioner.
“This language can only be interpreted in one way: They won’t allow the impossible status proposals floated by the PDP for years,” Pierluisi said.
But former Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, still a member of the island’s upper chamber for the NPP, chastised those within his party who welcomed the news, saying the referendum results already spoke for themselves.
“They have to demand respect for that vote,” he said.
A similar appropriation was proposed by then President Bill Clinton in 2000 and enacted into law by the Republican Congress in 2000 for a Puerto Rican status choice in 2001. (It was not spent because the funds lapsed before a plan was developed.)
In a March 2011 report, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status found that the island’s development needs were hindered by lack of resolution of the ultimate status question. The issue also raises questions about the appropriate federal policies related to Puerto Rico.
The task force also advised, as it did under President George W. Bush, that Puerto Ricans should vote to determine their aspirations among the possible options for Puerto Rico’s status. It identified the possible options as: commonwealth (under which islands exercise local self-government but are subject to broad congressional governing authority under the Territory Clause of the Constitution, may be treated differently than states in federal laws, and do not have voting representation in the federal government; U.S. statehood; Independence, nationhood in a free association with the U.S. (similar to the arrangements that the U.S. has with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau in the Pacific).