Thursday, June 12, 2008

Forgetting Puerto Rico

Every once in a great while, the issue of Puerto Rico’s status gets a quiet mention in American political discourse. Then everybody forgets about it.

Just a couple of days ago was one of those moments. While it is an exaggeration to say that Sunday’s primary put the national spotlight on the question of whether Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth, become independent or join the Union as the 51st state, it is fair to say the issue shone with light reflected off the star-bright candidates, Hillary and Obama.

For a minute or two, Americans actually thought about it. The candidates did, too. They both said Puerto Rico must have the right of self-determination. Which is what presidential candidates of both parties have said for a generation, right before everyone forgets about it.

Well, not everyone. Almost nobody in Puerto Rico forgets it. It is at the center of political consciousness there, so much so that the identity of the three major parties rests on their positions on the issue — pro-commonwealth, pro-statehood or pro-independence.

It’s been the Big Question in Puerto Rico since the United States acquired the island after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship but little self-rule with the Jones Act of 1917, and in 1952 the island became a Commonwealth, or as the official Spanish title has it, Estado Libre Asociado, or “Free Associated State.” That is what it remains today.

Supporters of the Commonwealth status say Puerto Rico is culturally distinct enough from the United States to justify separate treatment, but want to preserve long-standing political and economic ties with the U.S. Under the current arrangement, the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens who elect local government and vote in presidential primaries, but have no voting representative in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections (unless their legal residence is in one of the 50 states). They do not pay federal income tax, but do pay social security and local taxes. They can travel between the island and the mainland with no immigration encumbrances, as easily as flying from Texas to Minnesota.

Most Commonwealth supporters favor an “enhanced” Commonwealth, final form to be determined. Among the “enhancements” considered are veto power over federal legislation applicable to Puerto Rico, and the power to establish commercial treaties with foreign countries — attributes that might not pass constitutional muster.

Supporters of the statehood option say under the Commonwealth arrangement Puerto Rico is just a colony of the United States, a situation that becoming the 51st state would remedy. Puerto Rico would get two U.S. Senators and perhaps six Congressmen. Residents would lose their tax exemption and there would be no more Puerto Rican sports teams in international competition — not a small matter in a baseball-crazed island, and just one element of a serious cultural debate. Critics on the left say Puerto Rico would lose its 500-year old Hispanic culture if it became just one more state. Critics on the right, at least in the mainland’s version of the right wing, say that a Spanish-speaking island with a strong cultural sense of self should never become a U.S. state.

Supporters of independence believe Puerto Rico should be a sovereign Latin American nation, not in any way a part of the United States. Residents would lose U.S. citizenship and like other foreigners become subject to immigration law. Puerto Rico also stands to lose U.S. benefits like social security for individuals and tax breaks for businesses.

In four referendums, held in 1967, 1991, 193 and 1998, Puerto Rican voters upheld the Commonwealth status, with statehood a close second and independence far behind. In Sunday’s exit polls, however, statehood came in first with 59 percent; 35 percent favored Commonwealth, and four percent independence.

Those four referendums might as well have been exit polls, for all the legal weight they carried. What Puerto Rico needs is a binding referendum, with the backing of Congress to enact self-determination for Puerto Rico.

That’s going to take a lot of work. San Juan must figure out what final form the enhanced Commonwealth will take. Washington must consider the constitutionality of those enhancements, and debate the pros and cons of what will in essence be a Hispanic state.

But San Juan has been too mired in political fights to finalize those enhancements (in the 1998 referendum the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party instructed followers to vote for “None of the Above”). Washington? In the excitement over Obama’s historic nomination-in-waiting, it has already forgotten all about it.


Carmen said...

Puerto Rico does pay Federal Taxes.
I don't know where you get that they don't.
We know many people in PR and they do pay Federal Taxes plus they fill out their Tax Returns by April 15 like us.
In fact we where down there in Frbruary and there were ads for H&R block and other Income Tax places to have taxes done.
Puerto Ricans would either like to stay the way the are or become 51st state.

Roger E. Hernández said...

As I wrote, Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico pay no federal incime tax but do pay social security tax.