The significance of the results of Puerto Rico’s Nov. 6, 2012 status plebiscite, how Congress should react to those results and what needs to be done to finally resolve the issue of the island’s ignominious political status is slowly but surely emerging as part of the agenda of the “unfinished business of American democracy.”
The reason for some of the intentionally-created confusion about Puerto Rico’s most recent plebiscite can be easily explained. There are forces on the island — along with a small cadre of mostly “hired gun” allies in Washington — that oppose any Puerto Rican status solution because they want to replace the island’s current territory status with a governing arrangement that U.S. officials have uniformly said is impossible.
To understand the issue, it is necessary to first recognize the possible alternatives for Puerto Rico’s future in addition to the status quo, which was indisputably rejected in the Nov. 6, 2012 plebiscite. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, along with congressional committees, have said that there are only three possible alternatives to territory status. Other proposals are inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution and are unacceptable for structure of government and basic policy reasons.
The options are to become a state of the United States; an independent nation; or a nation in free association with another nation (becoming a sovereign country in a power-sharing arrangement that either nation can unilaterally end).
So if Puerto Rico’s alternatives are so clear, why is there always controversy about the options on the island’s status plebiscite ballots? The root of the problem is that the forces that do not want Puerto Ricans to choose among the real options contend that successive Democratic and Republican administrations and Democratic and Republican-controlled congressional committees have been ignoring a fourth option.
Under proposals put forth by these “fourth option” advocates, the U.S. would be permanently bound to Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rico could nullify federal laws and court jurisdiction and enter into arrangements with foreign countries — which requires national sovereignty. Most economic benefits of Puerto Rico’s current U.S. status would continue to apply with some new ones and Puerto Ricans would continue to be granted U.S. citizenship.
Let’s call this fourth option the “Fantasy Island” option.
In the 2012 plebiscite, the “Fantasy Island” or status quo advocates urged voters to not vote on the question of an alternative to the current status, claiming that their proposal should have been a fourth alternative. The problem with their 2012 strategy on the question of an alternative to the current status is that Puerto Rico law is crystal clear that non-votes do not count.
In a 2000 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court also made it clear that blank ballots do not count if the applicable voting statute is clear about the validity of blank ballots. Federal and territorial law indisputably mean that beginning the transition to U.S. statehood won among the alternatives to territory status by a supermajority vote of more than 61 percent.
It is now up to the U.S. Congress to answer two simple questions. Does the U.S. follow the rule of law? And, if so, will it grant Puerto Rico’s petition for measures to begin the transition to statehood?
Members of Congress should not allow themselves to be fooled by “Blank Ballot” arguments. And there are only three possible alternatives to territory status. There is no “Fantasy Island” option that combines incompatible elements of statehood, nationhood and territory status.
It’s time for Congress to adhere to the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution, and to stop being fooled by those who are trying to keep Puerto Rico from reaching its rendezvous with destiny. In sum, Congress should act upon the valid 61 percent majority vote for a transition to statehood. Congress should say “welcome home” to Puerto Rico.
Frank Rullán is a Florida and Puerto Rico attorney and former vice president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association of Florida