That Status Feeling: More Than The Primaries?

by John Marino

August 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Everybody it seems -- even the San Juan Archbishop -- has been talking about political status lately.

And most of those doing the talking say it’s because conditions have never been so favorable to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status once and for all.

But then again, it could just be the primary election season. What better time to stoke the status debate than now, when political hopefuls are battling for the votes of party militants, the ones in Puerto Rico who care must deeply about the status issue.

Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the Popular Democratic Party’s 2004 gubernatorial candidate, pointed recently to an emerging consensus in Puerto Rico that something should be done to resolve the status quandary as creating genuine momentum.

His likely opponent from the New Progressive Party in 2004, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, also said recently that the fact that all three parties agree that the current status does not meet Puerto Rico’s needs represents historic common ground reached by the parties.

Rosselló recently discussed the two-pronged attack on how he would resolve the status issue. The doctor’s prescription calls for a referendum in which Puerto Ricans would tell Congress they want a "non-colonial" solution to their status dilemma (or not), while simultaneously waging a battle to address Puerto Rico’s grievances on this front in the federal courts.

Most of the four NPP resident commissioner candidates vying for the office back the Rosselló plan, although some have other ideas of their own. Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, for instance, said her ideal solution would be to file a bill in Congress setting the terms for Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union as a state, which island voters would either accept or reject. She made it clear, however, that she would back NPP gubernatorial candidate front-runner Rosselló’s plan.

Acevedo Vilá has so far not issued a specific status plan, but his running mate for resident commissioner, Sen. Roberto Prats, has said he would eventually support the convocation of a constituent assembly, which would draft a status proposal for Congress to act on and Puerto Rican voters to ratify (or not). The Puerto Rican Independence Party also energetically supports the idea of a "final" status resolution through a constituent assembly.

Local political parties are not the only ones talking status. National parties, searching for local support, are also getting into the act. U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, one of several Democrats vying for the presidential nomination for 2004, made a stop on the island this week to raise cash -- and of course -- discuss the issue.

He pledged if elected he would work to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status quickly. ''The decision of the future of Puerto Rico should be made directly by Puerto Ricans,'' Graham said in an appearance with Rosselló, adding that he supports holding a federally mandated status referendum.

The other Democratic presidential contenders are also expected to visit Puerto Rico -- and invariably talk status. Although Puerto Ricans lack the presidential vote, the island branches of national political parties have 58 delegates who help select their presidential nominees. Local cash donations also catch the eyes of national candidates.

The Republicans have also been picking up the status ball. Several local press reports, citing unidentified sources, say that the Bush White House is expected to reactivate a committee on Puerto Rico’s status begun under the administration of former President Bill Clinton. Local Republicans have also said that would happen.

An official in the State Department also recently reiterated the administration’s policy prohibiting Puerto Rico from acting on its own to join international organizations or to sign agreements with foreign governments. The official also said that high-ranking Puerto Rican officials traveling abroad should not be treated as ministers or heads of state. The comments came after reports over a message supposedly given by Secretary of State Colin Powell to U.S. embassies in the region warning of Puerto Rico government efforts to act as a "sovereign entity" in international affairs.

Sure news of Gov. Calderón’s wedding to ex Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Ramón Cantero Frau has gotten better coverage this week than the island’s political status, but she will leave office by 2004. All those vying to replace her have pledged to energetically pursue action on status once in office.

Much of the status chat owes to the primary season, but there are also indications that the current flurry of proposals could last much longer. Conditions may really be unique to go beyond the usual status debate and into concrete action.

Status does appear to be rising as a concern. That must have been why San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves felt compelled to address in a Pastoral Letter the Church recognition of a "Puerto Rico Nation" (in cultural terms anyway) when it named 200 years ago the first native Puerto Rican archbishop -- Juan Alejo de Arizmendi.

Some statehood Catholics expressed outrage. "Fifty percent of Puerto Ricans are doomed to hell," steamed one columnist, in response to the letter’s assertion, perhaps best summed up in this passage from its prologue, that "God has gifted us with a fatherland, a nation and a particular identity, and we must be accountable to Him for such a valuable heritage." Other sectors cringed at the letter’s placing of the birth of the Puerto Rican nation at that Catholic ceremony, rather than centuries before where it belonged with the advent of the Taíno civilization in Puerto Rico.

But the expressions by a religious leader — who must have known he would be slammed for violating the line between church and state when broaching status — inevitably reveals how deeply ingrained in Puerto Rico society is the current status discussion. That’s a boon for Puerto Ricans who want action on status regardless of ideology.

Besides the hunt for cash and primary votes, national political parties may have more reason to embrace the issue as federal tax incentives and U.S. militarization on the island phase out.

In the blaze of daily news stories, the historical sometimes get lost. Puerto Rico’s historic role as a military colony, which has been fading for decades, is about to suddenly end. So are — coincidentally or not — the main economic tools that have buoyed the island since the Operation Bootstrap industrial program was born more than 50 years ago, nearly simultaneously with the commonwealth.

It is primary season. But there are clearly other reasons that the current status momentum will continue well beyond November.

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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