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Committee on Energy & Natural Resources
United States Senate
Hearing to Review the Results of the 1998 Puerto Rico Status Plebiscite
May 6, 1999
This statement is submitted on behalf of the Puerto Rico Herald for this important meeting of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, as it reviews the results of the Puerto Rico political status plebiscite of December 13, 1998.
The Puerto Rico Herald is an independent voice favoring informed self-determination for Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico self-determination is a bipartisan national political issue.
Every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower and every Republican party presidential platform since 1972 has endorsed Puerto Rican self-determination and statehood, if so chosen by the Puerto Rican electorate.
Democrats, too, favor the right of the 3.8 million American citizens in Puerto Rico to finally resolve their relationship with the U.S. within a political status that grants them full democratic rights and equality under law.
The Puerto Rico Herald's statement reviews the results of the 1998 plebiscite, discusses its successes and shortcomings and proposes a self-determination process that will finally unlock the century old status stalemate and thereby serve the interests all Americans consistent with the U.S. Constitution and international legal norms.
First, the plebiscite results reaffirm that Puerto Ricans cherish their American citizenship and wish to make permanent their ties with our great nation.
Further the territorial status quo received less than one percent of the votes cast demonstrating that few favor this status as defined in HR 856 and during this committee's hearing on S. 472 last year. Similarly, support for the two forms of separate sovereignty combined -- independence and free association -- was under 3 percent.
Thus, of the four legitimate status options presented to the voters statehood obtained the most support, over 94 percent or 46.5 percent, of the total ballots cast.
Unfortunately, the self-determination process as carried out under Puerto Rico's local law was flawed. Its Supreme Court has required that in these ballot initiatives voters be given the opportunity to opt out by choosing "none of the above."
Permitting this choice allowed those who refuse to recognize what countless court decisions, legislative and regulatory acts and congressional hearings have concluded, namely that Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory subject to the Constitution's territorial clause, the opportunity to prevent all the people of Puerto Rico from choosing among the four legitimate options on the ballot.
Just what does 'none of the above' mean? It would make some sense if there was another legitimate status option that was not on the ballot, thus denying a valid choice to voters.
But, as we have learned from Congress and the courts, the choices on the ballot were inclusive.
Of course, territorial commonwealth advocates mobilized their supporters against the four choices by continuing to maintain that Congress and the courts have been wrong all along as Puerto Rico somehow exists as more than a locally self-governing territory outside and above the U.S. Constitution.
Their claim was, and is, that the definition of the status quo on the ballot was erroneous. This was the basis of their 'sitting out' the campaign and voting for 'none of the above.'
Well, the Puerto Rico Herald asks: Who is right, Congress or the Popular Democratic Party? The Federal Courts or the Popular Democratic Party?
This the question Puerto Rico faces today, tomorrow, and into the next millennium as it seeks to obtain meaningful self-determination for Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, Puerto Rico will not be able on its own to answer this question as long as political status is embedded in its political process and 'none of the above' offers opponents of reality the opportunity to perpetuate illusion.
There is nothing more Puerto Ricans could wish for than to be able to resolve this issue in Puerto Rico on their own and present it to Congress and the American people to implement.
But, Puerto Ricans need the help of Congress.
Statehood was not defeated in the 1998 plebiscite. Self-determination was dealt a set back. A setback that points towards the need for Congress to set the rules for Puerto Rico self-determination.
Rules that provide for a self-determination process that is legitimate, informed and decisive.
Puerto Rico cannot afford to continue into the next century half in and half out of America. A condition that is a result of its political status gridlock.
Puerto Ricans are in the armed forces but kept out of the federal polling booth.
Puerto Ricans are subject to the U.S Constitution but can be treated worse than other Americans.
Although Puerto Ricans pay no federal taxes they receive fewer federal benefits which must be made up by higher local taxes.
Puerto Ricans are paid in U.S. dollars but since Puerto Rico has not been fully integrated into the American economy the average worker there earns one-third his mainland counterpart.
No wonder the status impasse has caused almost three million Puerto Ricans to pursue the American dream in the fifty states.
Now that that status impasse has resulted in the overwhelming rejection of the present territorial commonwealth, it is imperative that Congress provide the mechanism to re-establish a new legitimate political status under which Puerto Rico's local self-government can continue and evolve into full self-government fully inside or fully outside the Union.
What is required is very simple to provide. A definitive list of political status options from which the people of Puerto Rico can choose. Once that choice is expressed it will be up to Congress and the American people to act on it by accepting or rejecting that freely determined informed choice.
To do nothing is to condemn Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans to a kind of limbo from which the only escape is migration to the states. While inaction might serve the purposes of some politically on the mainland and preserve the privileges of some in Puerto Rico, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans remaining on the island will remain economically disadvantaged and politically disenfranchised until permanent status is finally resolved, one way or the other.
Meanwhile, the rising tide of fully franchised Hispanic Americans in the fifty states will increasingly look to, and measure, the nation's leaders by their commitment to equality and equity for all Americans.
A Puerto Rico populated by Hispanic Americans denied full and equal participation in the American economy and full and equal access to the American democratic system will not sit well with their stateside counterparts when they cast pivotal votes for local, state and national offices from California to Texas to Arizona to Florida to New York.
Who among the nation's leadership, now or in the future, will be able to ignore this soon-to-be largest minority-voting block in the country?
This is a question all legislators and candidates for national office must address.
And the time is now as the presidential and congressional elections of 2000 fast approach.
The answer, of course, is for Congress -- this 106th Congress -- responding to the results of the December 13th plebiscite to enact federal plebiscite legislation that defines the options for status resolution and establishes a process under federal law to determine if and how permanent union and irrevocable U.S. citizenship can be attained on terms acceptable to the people of Puerto Rico and the mainland American electorate.
The process must also address issues of tax, language and budget policy, as well as citizenship rights, both in the event territorial commonwealth continues or if Congress and the people of Puerto Rico determine to end the current status in favor of independence or statehood.
And, in enacting this legislation, all of Puerto Rico's political parties must participate. Congress and the people of Puerto Rico cannot afford to tolerate a repeat scenario in which territorial commonwealth proponents refuse again to put forth their definition of the status quo and then proceed to attack congresses' finding as not reflective of their position. A tactic employed in an attempt to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the 1998 plebiscite.
For the reasons set forth, the Puerto Rico Herald urges the introduction and adoption of appropriate federal plebiscite legislation for Puerto Rico at the earliest possible time so the process of self-determination can continue.