The Shotgun Approach To Status

by John Marino

August 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. July is Puerto Rico's most political month, so it's no surprise that local politicians, even Gov. Calderón, have been batting around ideas about the thorny issue of Puerto Rico's status lately.

The Fourth of July here is just the first holiday to get the political discussion rolling, with statehooders using U.S. Independence Day as a rallying cry for their cause, while independence supporters often find something to protest about on July 4. A crescendo of sorts is reached on July 25, which serves as a triple anniversary for the landing of U.S. troops in 1898, the birth of the commonwealth status and the double murders on Cerro Maravilla.

Throw in the birthdays of statehood advocate José Celso Barbosa and autonomist Luis Muñoz Rivera, and it's easy to see why political status often makes front page news this time of year.

During last week's activities marking the 51st anniversary of the Commonwealth Constitution, Calderón, who has largely ignored the status issue since becoming governor in January 2001, called for a referendum in which voters would approve or reject the creation of a Constituents Assembly to deal with the status issue. While calling status a "priority," however, Calderón said the move should wait until after the next election, when she will no longer be governor.

With an election year approaching, there are good reasons for delaying a new status initiative until after the election year, but it's hard not to be cynical of the governor's stance, given her history of artfully avoiding the issue while in office.

She dilly-dallied during her first 18 months in power, waiting until the 50th anniversary of commonwealth last July before making good on a campaign pledge to convoke a tri-partisan committee aimed at finding consensus on picking a mechanism to resolve the island's status. When New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera opted to boycott the committee, the governor used it as an excuse to drop the status issue rather than pressing ahead with her efforts with the remaining parties, which could have forced some sort of action towards finding a status resolution mechanism.

Nonetheless, Calderón finally presenting last week a concrete idea to resolve the island's status has been effective, prompting political opponents and allies to counter with ideas of their own.

Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who is the favorite to win the NPP gubernatorial nomination, countered with his own referendum proposal. It would ask the people to call on Congress to hold a referendum in which it would define the status options for Puerto Ricans. The former governor also called for Puerto Rico to sue the United States for "territorial discrimination," opening another front in the status wars by going to the federal courts.

Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate, called Calderón's proposal "totally compatible with my thinking." But his running mate, Sen. Roberto Prats, said it would be better to have Congress authorize a Constituents Assembly which would define the status options for Puerto Rico in a future vote.

Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos, a long-time proponent of the Constituents Assembly, said the referendum asking voters to accept or reject the idea should be held this December, and if the voters approve it, its members should be elected during the first part of 2004, when the parties will introduce their proposed status definitions to the body. And in a twist on Rosselló's call for a petition to Congress, Berríos said Puerto Rico's political leaders should ask Congress to return former military lands in Puerto Rico back to local control.

There is a good deal of politicking going on within this month's status discussion; candidates for office have one eye on November and another on Puerto Rico's century-long relationship with the United States. But there does appear to be recognition among all political parties -- even among commonwealth supporters -- that the current status arrangement needs improvement. And it would be a shame if that consensus gets destroyed by political jockeying for power.

Indeed, many of the ideas being proposed have merit, and the various status alternatives do not necessarily cancel each other out, but could also be used to compliment each other.

For example, there is no reason why Calderón's call for a referendum and Rosselló's call for a referendum could not both be put into effect, if not simultaneously, than shortly after each other.

Likewise, a Constituents Assembly could begin meeting at the same time a status legal battle could be launched. Both would likely be a years-long process, but they would help keep the status issue alive in San Juan and Washington.

The barrage of ideas on political status being put forth in July by statehood, commonwealth and independence supporters is encouraging. But instead of criticizing each others ideas, they need to join forces for a multi-pronged approach to resolving the island's status dilemma.

A shotgun approach to status is increasingly looking like the way to go.

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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