November 8, 2012

By Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera

Much is being said about the vote in Puerto Rico and in particular, the vote on the island’s future political relationship with the United States. Interestingly, some news outlets are simplifying the results, presenting them as overwhelming votes for statehood or reporting that Puerto Ricans want to be a part of the United States. A closer look at the dynamics involved in the referendum yield a more complicated scenario.

Puerto Rico has been a colony of the US since 1898, when American naval fleets bombarded San Juan during the Spanish-American War and subsequently invaded through the island’s southern coasts. Islanders, having been involved in their own struggle for independence from Spain as well as having taken a blood oath with the Cuban independence struggle, either fought skirmishes with the invading American troops or welcomed them with open arms, imagining that they would be blessed with the liberties promised by American political ideals. Instead, martial law was established, Spanish citizenship outlawed, currency devalued, and independence supporters persecuted. In the end, Puerto Rico was to remain a colonial territory, a possession, this time under the tutelage of the United States. Over time, the relationship developed amidst turmoil and controversy. In response to Puerto Rican Nationalist agitation and growing violence between island police forces and nationalist revolutionaries demanding independence, and international pressure, the US in 1952 developed the current political status known as the Commonwealth. The status, which allowed the island to develop its own local government, did not change the fundamental political relationship with the US, as Congress continued to maintain full political responsibility over the island. To this day, Puerto Ricans continue to call for some type of change to this political status.

Several times over the course of this history, the island has been offered opportunities to express its opinion regarding the political status issue via local referendum. Each one has yielded the same general result with the status quo Commonwealth status winning the consultation, although with the caveat at times of what the Carter Administration referred to as a campaign of “dirty tricks” being conducted by the CIA in their fraudulent meddling with the 1967 gubernatorial election and referendum there. This casts doubt on the legitimacy of the results as does the consistent interference with the island’s independence movement by the FBI and the island’s local police forces.

In recent years, the issue of the political status of Puerto Rico flared up once again with the release of the Bush Administration’s report on the issue, which confirmed once again that the island was a colonial territory of the US and claimed, among other things, that the US had the legal right to promptly surrender the island to any other nation. Alarmed by the colonialist nature of this position, island political leadership began pressuring Congress for a first: a referendum on status organized and sponsored by Congress itself, making the results binding. The Congressional behemoth, paralyzed by fears of a Spanish-speaking Latin American nation with a history of radical nationalism becoming the 51st state, did not respond and left the issue to be addressed by the island’s local government. Pro-statehood officials at the helm of the Commonwealth then organized this two-step vote in order to gauge the will of the people.

The design of the vote went something like this: The governor of Puerto Rico, a pro-statehood Tea Party supporter who supported draconian economic measures and laid off 30,000 government workers at the outset of his administration, and his statehood party, designed the so-called plebiscite. They determined that since the Bush administration report called the Commonwealth status territorial and colonial, and since everyone knows colonialism is wrong and must be remedied, the status vote should only include options that are not colonial in nature. Thus, the options were determined to be: statehood, independence, and a version of Commonwealth supported by some and named “enhanced Commonwealth”. This last option would signify some kind of relationship with the US but with greater autonomy and power wielded by the island over herself.

However, the pro-Comonwealth party protested the measure, insisting that the majority of Puerto Ricans want the status quo and denied that the current status was colonial in nature. This caused fracture and division in their party, as some internally pushed the party to adopt a stance supporting more autonomy and power for the island.

While the independence movement continued to call for the island’s independence as a remedy for the invasion and conquest of the island and rejected statehood as just another form of colonialism, the Puerto Rican Independence Party then proposed that a two-step vote be taken. One step designed to allow the people to declare their rejection or acceptance of the current political status and the second step allowing those who reject the status quo to declare their future status preference. The pro-Statehood administration accepted this proposal and the measure was passed over the objection of the Commonwealthers who promptly declared they would abstain from the process and called on their supporters to either abstain or conduct protest votes (either submit a blank vote or write a protest message on the ballot).

The initial results on Election Day were quite interesting. Incumbent Governor Luis Fortuno, a favorite of the US Republican Party, was voted out of office as the electorate, angry over layoffs, social turmoil, spiraling crime rates, corruption, and high unemployment, decided to place their confidence in pro-Commonwealth candidate Alejandro Garcia.

The so-called plebiscite results were equally as interesting. The first question resulted in a mild rejection of the status quo with 54% voting NO on continuing the Commonwealth status and 46% voting YES. A closer look reveals that if one includes protest votes in the total then the true support for NO drops to 51%. The second question is now the subject of raging debate.

First reports placed Statehood with 61% support, followed by enhanced commonwealth with 33% and independence with 6%. Why would the electorate vote a pro-Commonwealth governor into power but reject the Commonwealth status? Why would they vote a pro-Commonwealth governor into power but select Statehood as their preferred status? What would have happened if the vote included the normal actual status quo Commonwealth as an option? Would it have won the vote?

A closer examination of the ballots now reveal something else. If again one includes the blank votes submitted by Commonwealth supporters (470, 032 votes) and protest votes (17, 673) then the number of total votes changes, leading one to conclude that statehood received a total of 804, 637 votes (45%) and non-statehood a total of 998, 892 votes (55%). Under this scenario, the majority of the electorate on the island does not really support statehood. Additionally, it is interesting to note that approximately 40% of the electorate voted to support Puerto Rico's sovereignty (either in relation to the US or as an independent country).

Also, it is evident that even if folks voted YES in support of the status quo in the first question thus eliminating the need for them to vote in the second part for a preferred status option, many went ahead and voted in the second part of the referendum anyway since no control measure was placed over that process. This may have skewed the true sentiments of the electorate.

Well known sports figures on the island tweeted their opinion following the results, declaring their desire to continue to represent the island during Olympic events, an implicit rejection of statehood. The island would lose its independent Olympic representation if it becomes a state. The results provoked a flurry of commentary across the island, as some expressed a desire to become a state based on the their perception that the island would receive a marked increase in federal tax dollars – a perception strongly promoted by the island’s pro-statehood party, and others denouncing statehood as a death sentence for the island’s rich culture, Latin American history, Spanish language, and fervent national identity.

In the end, the vote was a referendum, a consultation on the opinion of the electorate. It is non-binding meaning Congress has no obligation to act on the results and as in the past, will likely ignore the results. Governor elect Garcia has called the status vote “a mess” and has stated he would ignore the results and instead call for a Constituent Assembly in January 2014. This mechanism entails organizing a national convention designed to discuss status options and present alternatives to Congress in an effort to negotiate a status with the United States.

In the end, it is clear that the current Commonwealth status has reached its end. With Puerto Rico in severe social, economic, environmental, and political crisis having occurred within the Commonwealth system with no real solutions being available within that system, it is evident that this political status is no longer functional and effective for the development and success of the island and its population. Its limitations have taken a severe toll on the island. Additionally, any system of government that is colonial in nature is one that is wrong, obsolete, and according to the UN, a crime and an impediment to world peace.

Whatever one may think about this issue, the truth is that it continues to be a deeply complicated and passionate one. The complexities cannot be escaped from or evaded. Statehood supporters claim they have a right to statehood and have begun to use civil rights language, since they feel they are Americans, are proud of their American citizenship, proud of the participation of Puerto Ricans in the US Armed Forces, state they want equality and economic parity with the rest of the states, and wish to deepen this relationship with the US. Commonwealth supporters express pride in being Puerto Rican but also deeply value American citizenship, express they have the best of both worlds, reject the notion that Puerto Rico is a colony, value American military defense over the island, and talk of a permanent relationship with the US. Independence supporters express a wish to have full control over the island’s economic, political, territorial, and social affairs, wish to have international representation by joining the United Nations and full economic partnerships with other countries, and refer to the island’s continued colonization as a relic of the past akin to slavery and imperialism, as well as calling for freedom of their political prisoners and an end to FBI interference in their movement.

However, there is one element not being mentioned. This being a process of decolonization, it is striking that the United Nations has not been invited to take part in this process. Whereas the United States traditionally rejects the UN’s annual call for Puerto Rico’s independence and self-determination, it has also admitted that the island is a colonial territory that has never undergone a process of self-determination.

Since the US has acknowledged that the UN is the body legally responsible for decolonization of territories, it is disheartening that it would continue to isolate the United Nations from this process, especially considering the complexity of the issue involved here and the expertise that the UN wields. International law dictates that the international community is charged with leading and organizing such a process and here Puerto Rico sadly struggles with her political future after being militarily invaded with no help allowed from the community of nations. In spite of calls made for Puerto Rico’s freedom from dozens of countries in Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East, there is no concrete step taken by the colonial power to remedy their act of colonization and break the chains of political bondage.

As the Caribbean archipelago of Puerto Rico once again grapples with visions of the future which are affected by experiences of the past, one can only hope that the final result is one of justice, deserving of a people subjected to over 500 years of colonialism and who yearn, just as everyone does, for a brighter future and a better tomorrow.