Home This Week Special Feature Status Referendum
Issued : Wednesday, October 10, 2012 12:00 AM
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Status Referendum

Edition: October 11, 2012 | Volume: 40 | No: 40

Law 600, enabling Puerto Rico's constitutional assembly and the current commonwealth status in 1952, was intended to obtain consent of the governed. Since then, three status referendums have been held—in 1967, 1993 and 1998—leaving little resolved but to continue debating the status issue.

On Nov. 6, Puerto Rico's voters will give the status issue another try in a referendum that asks two questions. The first, a "yes" or "no," asks whether to keep the current commonwealth status, and the second one provides a choice between statehood, free association and independence.

That the questions could be contradictory, and that this plebiscite doesn't follow the blueprint established by H.R. 2499, has been criticized by some former governors. Ahead are the views of gubernatorial candidates—the incumbent Luis Fortuño for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP), and challengers Sen. Alejandro García Padilla for the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and Juan Dalmau for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP).

Editor's note: Every four years, come election time, CARIBBEAN BUSINESS hosts editorial-board interviews with the gubernatorial candidates on the most important issues affecting our economy. This marks the sixth in a series of articles discussing wide-ranging issues: the general economy, job creation, public safety, federal funding, energy,healthcare, permit reform, education and political status. This sixth installment presents each candidate's view on the status referendum.

CB: The U.S. Senate didn't bring the lower chamber's H.R. 2499 to a vote. So now, we have yet one more criollo [local] status referendum coming up. What is your view on the implications of this plebiscite?

Fortuño: First, in terms of the possibility of conflicting results, if that were to happen, that would be in line with our history [laughs]. I accept that I have lost sleep over that. Having said that, however, people have to understand that to bring players to the table on such a divisive issue isn't easy. And you have different parties, or groups, and then you have a Legislature.

What I'd be against would be changing the rules of the game halfway through it. I wouldn't be for it. Even if argued that it could make the bill better; I believe that's wrong. I'm a statehooder.

We have to be honest. We haven't begun an educational process the way we should. But I believe statehooders, and the same should apply to others that prefer other status options,when it came to statehood, no statehooder should have a question as to how we should vote. It should be against the status quo, against the territorial status, which doesn't grant us the tools we need to grow. And we should demand our rights as [U.S.] citizens, and the only way to demand our rights is to guarantee a permanent union with the U.S. through statehood. So I'll vote "No," and vote for statehood. And, you know, I see a lot of statehooders going over this, concerned about how others are going to vote.

CB: Former governors have come out saying that the result could be contradictory…

Fortuño: One former governor doesn't want any of these questions, and I understand what he wants to do, but it was voted that twice, not once, twice at the party's board. And, with all due respect, we will continue with the way it is, and I have a lot of respect for that former governor, but this was extensively discussed. And the party's board felt it wasn't going to seem fair because questions have to be straightforward, and they have to seem fair. So that was the decision, it isn't that no one heard the argument, we heard it twice—in different dates. OK? But I believe we should be less concerned as to how others are going to vote and more concerned of making sure people vote the right way.

CB: The U.S. Senate didn't bring the lower chamber's H.R. 2499 to a vote. So now, we have yet one more criollo [local] status referendum coming up. What is your view on the implications of this plebiscite?

García Padilla: I believe it is everyone's conclusion that this bill is a tool, that it wasn't designed to attend to the status issue, that nobody respects the process, that it wasn't intended to accomplish that [addressing status]. The process proposed by the U.S. Congress [H.R. 2499], by which it would have to accept the results, will see a process here presented in a fashion very different to that which was amended and passed over there.

The U.S. House of Representatives contemplated two different votes on two different days, and they said it was unfair because the process didn't include the commonwealth [option] in the second vote. It was amended, shelved in the Senate and then discredited by the White House [Task Force] Report [on Puerto Rico]. So, everyone knows that the process isn't valid.

And even Sen. Bob Menéndez asked Gov. Fortuño, "What is that—ELA Soberano [Sovereign Free Associated State]? Explain it," during public hearings, for the public record. And the governor replied, "Yes, I know that it is very confusing, and if we have to remove something from the process it should be that."

CB: There are two definitions pertaining to the first and second question that could be conflictive. What will be the impact in Congress of results that could be contradictory?

García Padilla: Nothing, zero. It wasn't designed to deliver any movement on the status issue. The governor did this because he knows that even statehooders don't support him and to try to get them to the polls to see if they will vote for him because they are already there. That is what this is all about.

What do I propose? First, defeat Gov. Luis Fortuño Burset on all the ballots. Secondly, I propose attending to the status issue in a serious manner even for those who don't like me. I know I am going to govern for people who think like me and for people who think differently regarding status. And I owe them the utmost respect. And if they beat me fair and square, they beat me fair and square.

I propose a constitutional assembly. That is my proposal to seriously deal with the issue.

Eight of us went to the U.S. Capitol and explained the issues to the members of Congress. They said, "That isn't what we were told by the statehooders." "Of course not," we said.

Former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló said the plebiscite is poorly structured and that it should be amended, and so does former Gov. Pedro Rosselló.

CB: What exactly is ELA Soberano?

García Padilla: El ELA Soberano es la independencia [The Sovereign Free Associated is independence]. I believe in the autonomous development of the Commonwealth in the context of our relationship with the U.S. I believe that the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the only one that can interpret the Constitution, said that Commonwealth is a unique status, and that the relationship changed in 1952.

My definition of the Commonwealth—why weren't they able to criticize it? Because there were seven sentences quoting the Supreme Court. By the way, we approved the definition twice during an assembly of the PDP. I said, "One moment, are you in agreement with the definition of the Commonwealth?" The first time, I went sentence by sentence so that there would be no confusion.

CB: The U.S. Senate didn't bring the lower chamber's H.R. 2499 to a vote. So now, we have yet one more criollo [local] status referendum coming up. What is your view on the implications of this plebiscite?

Dalmau: First, it's all about how it was originally proposed, which was by our party [the PIP], contrary to what has been said that this is a thing structured by the NPP and [Gov.] Fortuño. No, no.

This proposal was born from what the PIP presented, which was approved by a unanimous vote in the Senate and the House in 2005. Then the governor at that time [Aníbal Acevedo Vilá] vetoed it, for reasons that don't matter anymore. Since then, the PIP has been looking for a plebiscite through which the country can express itself. Although a referendum isn't our first choice.

We have always believed in a constitutional assembly for status, in which the formulas under consideration are decolonizing and nonterritorial. But we don't have the power, so we can't do what we really want. And the ones who have power don't believe in a constitutional assembly for status.

The choice can't be to do nothing, so we decided to push this bill, which represents the first chance in 114 years for Puerto Ricans to say if they want to continue as is, in a first question, and on the next question, whether we prefer annexation, or what they call a Sovereign Free Associated State.

CB: Is that the same as independence? To be a Sovereign Free Associated State, sovereignty is independence in all the treaties.

Dalmau: But those are agreements that take place in a single act. Yes, there is an acknowledgement of political sovereignty, because it is the base from which agreements can be reached. But for me, free association is a concept that developed in the '60s for places with a population of 30,000 or 40,000 people who had different ethnicities—to have the essential elements, such as infrastructure for airports, for communication and mail service; they needed to be an appendix of metro-political countries.

And in that aspect, free association isn't a design, in terms of international law for countries with whole nationalities that have millions of inhabitants, which makes the concept for me nonapplicable. But there are those who back it.

The position of the PDP is one that responds to its electoral reality. The PDP thinks they are going to win the election, therefore, the less elements at stake at the polls, the better. They have said that their choice isn't represented there. I disagree.

García Padilla keeps repeating that we haven't followed what the Obama's White House [Task Force] Report recommends.

Well, the report, says that the Free Associated State is a temporary territorial status, subject to the territorial clause in Congress. García Padilla himself recognized that. So there it is, and if you want to continue with the current territorial status, you vote "Yes." And the one who believes in it has all the right to. What I don't think they are entitled to is turning a very serious election into a pawn for partisan politics. That's a rhetorical labyrinth that contributes nothing to the political process of Puerto Rico, and they should say it aloud: "Look, we believe in the current territorial status, so vote this way."

CB: Could having two questions during the same plebiscite deliver contradictory results?

Dalmau: The second question is submitted to the first one. If the wish to continue with the current territorial status wins, the second question becomes ineffective, no matter if another option wins in it.

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