Rosselló’s New Prescription On Status

by John Marino

March 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOIn a flurry of interviews with island media outlets during his weeklong stay in Puerto Rico, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló discussed everything from corruption to how to improve health reform to the alleged incompetence of the Calderón administration.

It was clear that Rosselló, who seemed to have grown impatient, even world-weary during his eight years as governor, had his batteries recharged during his two years stateside teaching public health courses at universities in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Stripped of the huge entourage that comes with being governor, Rosselló was traveling light, accompanied by his trusted aide, Frances Rodríguez, and two bodyguards assigned for his protection while in Puerto Rico. In the interviews, he was more than willing to field tough questions about corruption and the failures of his administration.

But the former governor became most animated during his discussion of the island’s status dilemma. Rosselló, whose public persona is that of a man of action rather than an intellectual, also clearly had spent much of his time outside office in deep thought about status and his discussion of the issue took on philosophical overtones.

While a third Rosselló administration would continue lobbying the federal executive branch of government and Congress to address the issue of Puerto Rico’s status, he said he would attack the issue via a third route as well: taking the island status fight to federal courts.

"It’s another flank we have to look at when we see that the processes in the other political branches have been so frustrating," he said in one interview.

Don’t expect another plebiscite to be called if Rosselló comes back to La Fortaleza for a third term. He said he now sees a status vote as the final phase in resolving Puerto Rico’s political status -- a question put to Puerto Ricans only after other branches of the federal government have acted on the issue.

He admitted to making mistakes during the plebiscites he called in 1993 and 1998. In the first vote, the parties were allowed to create their own definitions of the political status they supported, which led voters to choose unrealistic options, Rosselló said.

In 1998, while the his administration was able to get the U.S. House to pass a bill that would have bound Congress to the results of a status plebiscite, the U.S. Senate let the measure die. In allowing a fifth option, the infamous "none of the above," the plebiscite allowed Puerto Ricans not to take a decision on the issue, he said.

Rosselló admits to being frustrated by his administration’s inability to win support in the Senate, but he now sees that the institution itself is set up to be "conservative."

"It resists change and has the mechanisms to do so," he said, pointing to the filibustering tactic. In fact, the Senate was created in such a way in order to protect the state of the union, he added.

Rosselló sees the federal courts as another way to address status, arguing that Puerto Rico residents have a claim that their civil rights are being violated because they cannot vote for national officeholders — namely the president.

Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, Rosselló argued, are the only places on earth where if a U.S. citizen establishes residency he cannot vote for president.

"This is not even a Puerto Rican issue — it is a territorial issue, it is geographic discrimination," he told San Juan City Magazine last November.

Addressing Puerto Rico’s status issue will undoubtedly be an uphill battle, just like his previous fights for status, just as Rosselló’s third quest for La Fortaleza will be.

Two attempts to push the status issue through the courts, on behalf of island residents suing for the presidential vote, have been dashed by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. Constitutional experts also say the framers were clear in reserving the presidential vote for residents in the states of the union.

But Rosselló points out that the Supreme Court that upheld the concept of racial segregation is the same one that upheld the right of the United States to hold on to territories indefinitely. Just as the policy of segregation has been discarded as unconstitutional, the former governor argues, the discrimination against residents of the territories should also be.

"We have been looking at this here as a civil rights issue…but not challenging the doctrine established in the insular cases that the United States can have territories indefinitely where the civil rights of the residents don’t have to be recognized," he said last week.

While previous federal suits have failed to win a presidential vote, a ruling by appeals court in Boston, overturning a decision by U.S. Senior Judge Jaime Pieras, carries some hope for future federal court status fights. First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Juan Torruella warned that the executive and Congress would have to act soon on the "political disenfranchisement of Puerto Ricans" or the federal courts would be forced to do so. Rosselló ultimately sees the courts as a way to force the other branches of government to act on Puerto Rico’s political status.

Although a long shot, Rosselló’s plans for a future federal court status fight are provocative, already shaking up the current impasse on the issue.

New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera has already dropped his boycott against the Calderón administration’s call for status discussion, and said on the day Rosselló returned he is now willing to discuss status with Gov. Calderón and Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos.

Independentistas, meanwhile, have supported a separate status discussion convoked by the Ateneo Puertorriqueno because of Calderón’s inaction on her pledge to establish a consensus in San Juan on status before going to Washington with any proposals.

Independence supporters -- like statehooders -- said this week they would recognize statehood as a legitimate status choice but not the commonwealth defined by the Popular Democratic Party. The PIP recently called on the commonwealth government to use federal environmental regulations to declare the Navy’s Vieques military reservation a Superfund site in order to ensure cleanup. So, it might too support the call to address the island’s status in the federal courts.

That leaves Gov. Calderón and the PDP to make good on last summer’s pledges to seek an "improved" commonwealth. Foot-dragging on the issue was first justified by Pesquera’s refusal to join the discussions and then by a lousy economy and the United States preoccupation with the war on terrorism.

But those already talking about status argue that Calderón can concentrate on the economy and crime and other issues and still address status. They argue that it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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