Playing The Republic

by John Marino

September 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Commonwealth opponents scored a stinging political victory this week by leaking to local media federal documents that chastise the Calderón administration for misrepresenting Puerto Rico as being able to attain certain privileges exclusive to sovereign nations.

The release of the documents add fire to attacks by pro-statehood forces that the administration has been "playing the republic" in its international relations, and it has prompted independentistas to challenge the administration to seek more real sovereign powers.

The documents, including an action message by Secretary of State Colin Powell alerting embassies throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe of Puerto Rican attempts at misrepresenting the island’s political autonomy, were particularly powerful for a couple of reasons. They embarrassed Gov. Calderón when newspapers published stories on their existence the morning she first met with visiting Uruguayan President Jorge Luis Batlle, who took a two-day trip here this week in an attempt to boost trade between Puerto Rico and the South American nation. And they showed that many Calderón officials, if not outright lying, were at least guilty of stretching the truth.

It’s not at all clear what, if any, practical effect the federal documents will have on U.S.-Puerto Rico relations. Their release is probably as much a tribute to the ability of local pro-statehood forces to get their message heard in Washington, and their influence in the White House, as it is an indication that Bush administration officials are genuinely concerned by the Calderón administration’s forays into global relations. (They do have more pressing problems – Iraq, North Korea, Wesley Clark – to deal with.)

But the documents offer a decidedly different take on the "good relations" Calderón claimed this week her administration has with the Bush White House. More importantly, they point to a real credibility problem in the Calderón’s administration.

The governor said this week that her administration has not received "any official communications from the federal government" on the matter. That may be true, but one would hope that commonwealth officials would know about administration concerns over Puerto Rican behavior contained in action messages sent by Secretary of State Colin Powell on May 16 and Aug. 4 to U.S. embassies throughout the world. Especially when local media, citing unnamed sources, have been reporting on their existence for months.

But Powell indicates in his cables that the Calderón administration had been told of federal government concerns – casting doubt on the truthfulness of the governor’s claim. He noted in the May message that in July 2002 the State Department "invited the Puerto Ricans to discuss ways in which Puerto Rico can participate more actively in appropriate international activities." But by the May 16 date, "Puerto Rican officials have yet to respond."

Powell charges that there is a "deliberate attempt within Puerto Rico to misrepresent [its] international status."

"The [State] Department is aware that Puerto Rican government officials have approached a number of countries in [Western Hemisphere Affairs] seeking treatment only accorded to a sovereign state," Powell writes his embassy chiefs.

Calderón administration officials, from Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado, have insisted that the administration’s approaches to foreign nations have always been undertaken within the boundaries of the commonwealth relationship. But Powell warned "If posts are asked by host governments or others about an approach by Puerto Rico, they should inform
the department."

Powell’s cable gives other concrete examples of the administration misrepresenting Puerto Rico’s powers in international affairs, which Calderón officials have previously denied.

The May 16 cable said that in Nicaragua and Panama "the Puerto Ricans pressed government officials to sign cooperation agreements which contained language normally reserved for pacts with foreign states." It also noted that in November 2002, "Puerto Rico attempted unsuccessfully to elicit recognition as a sovereign state at the Ibero-American Summit in the Dominican Republic" – a charge repeatedly denied by Calderón administration officials.

The Aug.  4 message said that Puerto Rico requested "support from the government of Nicaragua in obtaining an official link with the Ibero-American Summit and its special conferences" that will be held in Bolivia in November. Mercado has denied the effort had been made.

Puerto Rico made no such request to Washington, Powell wrote, adding "given the predominantly political nature of the summit and the fact that the United States is not a participant, it is unlikely that Puerto Rican participation would be approved." 

The release of the Powell documents shows that the Calderón administration has blundered in its international relations. They have annoyed federal officials who have the ultimate authority to set the parameters of what Puerto Rico can and cannot do in its approaches to foreign governments. And they have misrepresented to foreign governments the level of political autonomy afforded the commonwealth, which makes for a genuine credibility problem.

That’s not a good track record for Calderón, who pledged to expand Puerto Rico’s role in the region at her January 2001 inauguration, attended by prominent heads of state from across the Caribbean and Latin America.

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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