Before the Committee on Resources

U.S. House of Representatives

Washington, D.C. on H.R. 856

The United States- Puerto Rico Political Status Act

March 19, 1997



The objective of this bill is right, but the means devised to accomplish it are wrong. This is not a balanced bill. This bill has a severe tilt. It is actually a statehood bill and as such is unacceptable.

 The bias which mars this bill is glaring and offensive. Commonwealth status, the preferred choice of the Puerto Rican people since its establishment in 1952, reaffirmed as recently as in the 1993 plebiscite called by the Statehood party itself, is pictured in dark colors and dismissed as a colonial status, unworthy of consideration. Should the people of Puerto Rico churlishly decide to continue backing it, further plebiscites must be held, until statehood, independence or free association, involving the loss of United States citizenship, is chosen. It being well known that the people of Puerto Rico want no pact on independence and take proper pride in their American citizenship, the result is, of course, pre-ordained for statehood.

 For the majority of the people of Puerto Rico that believe in autonomy and self-government with American citizenship as a bond with the United States, this bill offers no alternative. It will require that the more of 900,000 persons I represent that are against annexation as a state, choose between a colonial denigrating status or loosing our American citizenship. To vote in this plebiscite will force us to act against our political beliefs and our freedom of speech. It will violate the principle of equal protection and trample us upon our conscience.

 When Congress decided back in 1917 to offer American citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico, it was made completely disassociated from any thought of statehood and specifically contemplating that it be an element of future autonomous self-government developments for the island. To unilaterally change these assumptions now would confront Puerto Ricans with a conscience dilemma of no precedent in American History.

 With this bill as it stands, Statehood becomes the only available alternative. This anticipated result will be unfair both to Puerto Rico and the United States. The people of Puerto Rico would have to make a choice for statehood for the wrong reasons. Not based on patriotism and a real commitment to the Union, but because they have been left with no other real alternative. On the other hand, the U.S. Congress will have before it a petition for Statehood, and a request for action, without having considered properly the cultural, national, ethnic, linguistic, economic and social consequences of statehood. As you can see, this bill will not solve any problem, but rather create a bigger one.

 Let there be no doubt that we want to participate in a fair and democratic process. As Chairman Young stated in September 17, 1990 with regard to another referendum bill for Puerto Rico: "a referendum should only be authorized by the Congress if it is to be fair to all parties and the statuses they advocate." This should be the guiding principle in this process of enacting legislation . With all do respect , the bill under your consideration does not comply with the fairness standard you, Mr. Chairman, previously established.

 The assumptions of this bill, that it is not possible to have a non-colonial bilateral relationship, based a mutual consent with American citizenship as a bond between Puerto Rico and the United States, is against history, legal precedents and clearly unacceptable for us.

 We see the joint letter from Congressmen Young and Miller of March 3, 1997, giving the Popular Democratic Party the opportunity to present a new definition of Commonwealth before March 31, as a new approach and openness, to have a referendum "fair to all parties and the statuses they advocate" and to revise the dispositions and assumptions of this bill which have until now made impossible any meaningful participation for us.

 A starting point in this process should be the express recognition of what the present relationship is. The creation of Commonwealth status was a great joint achievement of the government of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico. Public Law 600 was enacted on July 3, 1950 by Congress authorizing the people of Puerto Rico to draft and adopt a Constitution. Recognizing the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico to establish its own Constitution, Congress clearly stated in Public Law 600 that: "fully recognizing the principle of government by consent, this act is now adopted in the nature of a compact" conditioning its effectiveness and the perfectioning of the compact on it first being approved by the people of Puerto Rico in a referendum.

Public Law 600 was overwhelmingly approved by the people. A Constitution was adopted on a second referendum and approved by the Congress on July 3, 1952. In Public Law 447, by which Congress accepted the Commonwealth Constitution , it is clearly stated that Public Law 600 had been adopted as a compact between Congress and Puerto Rico. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, adopted by the People and approved by Congress clearly recognizes the sovereignty of the people and the compact between Puerto Rico and the United States states:

 Section 1. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is hereby constituted. Its political power emanates from the people and shall be exercised in accordance with their will, within the terms of the compact agreed upon between the people of Puerto Rico and the United States of America.

 Section 2. The government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico shall be republican in form and its legislative, judicial and executive branches as established by this Constitution shall be equally subordinate to the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico.

 Based on these actions, the United States Government made a solemn representation to the United Nations, on the basis of which Puerto Rico was struck out from the list of non self-governing peoples in 1953. At that time, the United States government made clear statements before the United Nations with regard to the new status of Puerto Rico of a bilateral compact that can only be changed by mutual consent:

 "The previous status of Puerto Rico was that of a territory subject to the full authority of the Congress of the United States in all governmental matters. The previous constitution of Puerto Rico was in fact a law of the Congress of the United States, which was called an Organic Act. Congress only could amend the Organic Act of Puerto Rico. The present status of Puerto Rico is that of a people with constitution of their own adoption, stemming from their own authority, which only they can alter or amend. The relationships previously established by a law of Congress, which only Congress could amend, have now become provisions of a compact of a bilateral nature whose terms may be changed only by common consent"

 On November 27, 1953 the General Assembly of the United Nations approved Resolution 748 VIII which specifically declares that: "In the framework of their Constitution and of the compact agreed upon with the United States of America, the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have been invested with attributes of political sovereignty which clearly identify the status of self-government attained by the Puerto Rican people as that of an autonomous political entity"

 The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Puerto Rico is to be deemed "sovereign over matters not ruled by the [United States] Constitution"; that "the purpose of Congress in the 1950 and 1952 legislation was to accord to Puerto Rico the degree of autonomy and independence normally associated with a State of the Union"; that "Puerto Rico occupies a relationship to the United States that has no parallel in our history"; and that "Puerto Rico, like a state, is an autonomous political entity" (Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 US 663, 672-67 (1974); Rodriguez v. Popular Democratic Party, 457 US 1, (1982); Posadas v. Tourism Co., 478 US 328 (1986); Examining Board v. Flores de Otero, 426 US 572, (1976)1. While sitting in the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Judge, now Justice, Breyer stated in a landmark case [Cordova v. Chase Manhattan Bank, 649 F 2d 36, (1981)1:

 "In sum, Puerto Rico's status changed from that of a mere territory to the unique status of Commonwealth, and the federal government's relations with Puerto Rico changed from being bound merely by the territorial clause, and the rights of the people of Puerto Rico as the United States citizens, to being bound by the United States and Puerto Rico Constitutions, Public Law 600, the Puerto Rican Federal relations Act and the rights of the people of Puerto Rico as United States citizens."


O f the various of cases decided by Federal Courts touching upon Commonwealth status opponent to this option single out the case of Harris vs. Rosario, 446 U.S.651 (1980) to establish that Congress may, at any time, unilaterally alter or abolish Commonwealth, However the point of law before the Court in Harris vs. Rosario dealt with the question of whether it was constitutional for an act of Congress to deny Puerto Rico residents benefits under the AFDC program otherwise available to that citizen if residing in the mainland. To justify unequal treatment between the Puerto Rico residents and those of the several states in its brief discussion the Supreme Court made reference to the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution . However, there was no claim that the Commonwealth compact required that Congress must extend to Puerto Rico, in equal terms, all federal aid programs. Therefore, the holding in Harris vs. Rosario in no way invalidates the compact by virtue of which Commonwealth was created. Moreover, in all the cases after Harris in which the Supreme Court has confronted an issue regarding the nature of Commonwealth, the Court has validated the main principles of our present status. (See Rodriguez v. PDP, supra 1982; Posadas v. Tourism Co., supra, 1986) . (For further discussion of Harris see Appendices B)

 The definition of Commonwealth contained on H.R. 856 denies these precedents, presents Commonwealth as a classic colonial status and for the first time proclaims the revocability of the American citizenship all Puerto Ricans enjoy since 1917. Under these circumstances, Commonwealth followers which I represent, have no place to vote on the ballot proposed by this bill. It will force us to choose between a colonial alternative that goes against our beliefs and constitutional rights or, on the other side, deprive our children and grandchildren of the American citizenship. Two alternatives clearly unacceptable.

 History shows that full autonomy and American citizenship are not mutually exclusive concepts. Moreover, American citizenship has always been the bond for a permanent union entirely disassociated from statehood.

 This principle was clearly outlined by President Taft in his 1912 state of the Union address, advocating in favor of a bill pending in Congress to grant American citizenship to all Puerto Ricans, where he stated:

"I believe that the demand for citizenship is just, and that it is amply earned by sustained loyalty on the part of the inhabitants of the island. But it must be remembered that the demand must be, and in the minds of most Puerto Ricans is, entirely disassociated from any thought of statehood. I believe that no substantial approved public opinion in the United States or in Puerto Rico contemplates statehood for the island as the ultimate form of relations between us. I believe that the aim to be striven for is the fullest possible allowance of legal and fiscal self-government, with American citizenship as the bond between us; in other words, a relation analogous to the present relation between Great Britain and such self-governing colonies as Canada and Australia. This would conduce to the fullest and most self-sustaining development of Puerto Rico, while at the same time it would grant her the economic and political benefits of being under the American flag".

 As to the legal problems that conceivably could be raised, by granting American citizenship, Felix Frankfurter, when he was serving at the War Department, wrote in 1914 and is cited in Mora v. Torres, 113 F.Supp. 309, 319 (District of Puerto Rico, 1953), waiving aside sham constitutional objections:

 "The form of the relationship between the United States and unincorporated territory is solely a problem of statesmanship.

 History suggests a great diversity of relationships between a central government and dependent territory. The present day demands upon inventive statesmanship is to help evolve new kinds of relationships so as to combine the advantages of local self-government with those of a confederated union. Luckily, our Constitution has left this field of invention open ".


Congressional and official actions after the enactment of Commonwealth have been consistent with these principles and precedents that now this bill intents to unilaterally revoke. There is ample evidence, moreover, that Congress has expressly recognized the non-territorial character of Commonwealth Status. The report of 1964 of the federally created United States Puerto Rico Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico (Public Law 88-271) states:

 " The Commission's major conclusion is that all three forms of political status--the Commonwealth, Statehood, and Independence--are valid and confer upon the people of Puerto Pico equal dignity with equality of status and of national citizenship

 The Commonwealth relationship was established through bilateral agreement It is clear that the U.S. Government entered into a solemn agreement with the Puerto Rican people in 1952 and that the agreement, referred to in the legislation as the compact , bears permanent legal consequences.

 A solemn undertaking of such profound character between the Federal Government and a community of U.S. citizens is incompatible with the concept of unilateral revocation. It is inconceivable that either the United States or Puerto Rico would, by an act of unilateral revocation, undermine the very foundation of their common progress: the fundamental political and economic relationships which were established on the basis of mutuality.


The key to the continuation and development of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland is U.S. citizenship. This citizenship carries with it basic personal and institutional protections which cannot be encroached upon by the Legislature of Puerto Rico or the Congress of the United States".

 Other Congressional documents are consistent with these precedents. The basic principles regarding Commonwealth, that this bill pretends to deny--a bilateral relationship based on mutual consent with American citizenship as one of its components- -have been recognized in all the bills that the Congress has seriously considered to further develop Commonwealth in the last 25 years. For example:

 -H.R. 11200-1 introduced in Congress in 1975 to implement the result in favor of Commonwealth in the 1967 referendum and approved by the House Sub-Committee of Insular Affairs. It defined Puerto Rico as an autonomous body politic organized by their own, free and sovereign will, joint in permanent union with the United States with American citizenship.

 -S. 712 approved by the Senate Energy Committee in August, 1989, recognizing the bilaterality of the relationship and the permanence of the American citizenship.

 -S. 244 was also considered by the Senate Energy Committee in 1991. It recognized Puerto Rico's autonomy, bilateral compact, mutual consent and, U.S. citizenship as a bond of permanent union between the United States and Puerto Rico. Final Committee vote was 10-10, although major concerns to the Commonwealth definition were not reported.


-H.R. 4765 approved by the Insular Affairs Sub-Committee, by the Interior Committee and unanimously by the House of Representatives in August 10, 1990, allowing the people of Puerto Rico to vote for a New Commonwealth.

 So far, I have been talking about the historic precedents that clearly show that the assumptions under which this bill has been drafted are wrong. Now is time to talk about the future. The Chairman, Mr. Don Young, and the ranking Democrat, Mr. George Miller, have graciously asked me to submit a definition of Commonwealth.

 The definition I am about to present is made recognizing the sovereignty of the People of Puerto Rico to enter into a new relationship with the United States consistent with the principles of dignity, political autonomy and permanent union that gave birth to the present Commonwealth status. With minor changes in order to adjust it to the implementation process required by H.R. 856, the Popular Democratic Party believes that it would be adequate to work with the definition of a New Commonwealth adopted by this Committee in 1990 which was included in the report to H.R. 4765 of the 10lst. Congress approved by the Sub-Committee of Insular Affairs, by the full Committee of the Interior, and unanimously by the full House on October 10, 1990.

 Eleven members of this Committee, including Chairman Young and Congressman Miller, were members of that Committee and voted in favor of the definition I will now present. The New Commonwealth should be defined as follows:

  1. The new Commonwealth of Puerto Rico would be joined in a union with the United States that would be permanent and the relationship could only be altered by mutual consent. Under a compact, the Commonwealth would be an autonomous body politic with its own character and culture, not incorporated into the United States, and sovereign over matters covered by the Constitution of Puerto Rico, consistent with the Constitution of the United States.

(B) The United States citizenship of persons born in Puerto Rico would be guaranteed and secured as provided by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and equal to that of citizens born in the several states. The individual rights, privileges and immunities provided for by the Constitution of the United States would apply to residents of Puerto Rico. Residents of Puerto Rico would be entitled to receive benefits under Federal social programs equally with residents of the several States contingent on equitable contributions from Puerto Rico as provided by law.

 (C)To enable Puerto Rico to arrive at full self- government over matters necessary to its economic social, and cultural development under its constitution, a Special Constitutional Convention would submit proposals for the entry of Puerto Rico into international agreements and the exemption of Puerto Rico from specific Federal laws or provisions thereof. The President and the Congress, as appropriate, would consider whether such proposals would be consistent with the vital national interests of the United State in the transition plan provided for in Section 4 of this Act. The Commonwealth would assume any expenses related to increased responsibilities resulting from these proposals.

 This definition describes the minimum content of our aspirations. By offering a definition which was the subject of serious study, was actively supported by Chairman Young and Congressman Miller among others, and met with the approval of this Committee and of the whole House a few years ago we mean to show our desire to facilitate the work of this Committee and bring about a plebiscite in which Commonwealth supporters may participate with a clear conscience.

 By using the mechanism of a Constitutional Convention, which is already included in Section 4 (b) (1) (B) of H.R. 856, to implement a vote in favor of the New Commonwealth, we would adapt it to the implementation mechanism conceived by this bill.

 The Popular Democratic Party is looking with enthusiasm at the future. It is in the process of reorganizing its leadership and currently involved in a healthy generational transition that will guarantee a strong and rejuvenated party for years to come. The definition I have presented today fully complies with the principles contained in a document adopted last week by the Youth Organization of the Popular Democratic Party.

 Commonwealth as an autonomic ideal for the future is the only status alternative in Puerto Rico that harmonizes those aspirations and goals of the modern world by protecting our identity and simultaneously guaranteeing our relationship with the United States, with a common market, common citizenship, common defense and common currency.

 We believe that modern tendencies show that the ideas that will prevail in the new century will be those similar to the basic principles of Commonwealth of national reaffirmation and political and economic integration among the peoples of the world.

 Thank you.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback