Puerto Rican leaders disagree on island’s political future

Ben Kamisar

Forget the logistical nightmare of adding another star to the American flag – Puerto Rican politicians argued Thursday over whether their constituents want statehood in the first place.

The commonwealth’s governor and congressional delegate, as well as a leader of the independence movement, didn’t agree about Puerto Rico’s future during a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"I think our big challenge is to define what the options are – the legitimate options – and how would that be defined on a ballot," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said after the hearing. She said she’d be willing to work with Puerto Ricans to push for statehood if she thought there was a "united front."

Puerto Rico’s congressional delegate supports statehood, while Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla advocates a form of "enhanced commonwealth," a label he did not define when pressed by senators.

"Nobody knows what enhanced commonwealth means," said Ruben Berrios, the president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which supports independence from the United States. "This is just judicial hocus-pocus." Lawmakers at the hearing expressed concern that the tag would allow Puerto Rico to pick and choose which federal laws would apply to the island.

A referendum last November only produced more uncertainty in Puerto Rico. In a two-part ballot, 54 percent of voters rejected the commonwealth’s current status but only 44 percent of all votes cast favored statehood. Almost 500,000 voters left blank the question about what they’d like to be done, in protest of the referendum’s wording, leaving the idea of a mandate ambiguous. Opponents of statehood argued that the questions were biased in favor of the idea.

That left lawmakers on the mainland puzzled and both sides celebrating the outcome. Garcia Padilla and other opponents of statehood say those blank ballots should be seen as a protest, and they rally around the fact that fewer than half of voters chose statehood as the preferred option. But supporters contend that a clear majority of Puerto Ricans are against the current status and that statehood received more than 60 percent of the completed ballots.

"The current status has now lost its democratic legitimacy," said Pedro Pierluisi, the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, who serves as a delegate to Congress. "No senator would accept territory status for their constituents, so you must respect that my constituents do not accept it, either."

Puerto Rico’s former governor, Carlos Romero-Barcelo, said that while Puerto Ricans were American citizens, the only way to make their citizenship "whole" was to become a state and gain rights that they lacked compared with citizens of states. Among other things, residents of Puerto Rico can’t vote for president and their delegate in Congress doesn’t vote.

"The issue here is the discrimination against 3,700,000 Hispanic Americans who are American citizens and have been disenfranchised for 96 years were deprived of the right to vote and the right to representation," he said after the hearing. The former governor attended the hearing but didn’t testify.

While there isn’t yet a bill in the Senate, Pierluisi sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives to outline a path toward statehood.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget requests $2.5 million for a federally funded referendum on Puerto Rico’s future.

By Ben Kamisar
McClatchy Washington Bureau