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Political Status

Puerto Rico Plebiscite Ballot Creates Turmoil

On Thursday, April 13, 2017, acting deputy Attorney General of the United States, Dana J. Boente, sent a letter to Governor Ricardo Rosselló responding to his request for the disbursement of funds for a plebiscite about Puerto Rico’s political status.

As part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, a no-year appropriation of $2.5 million was included for the purpose of “objective, nonpartisan voter education about, and a plebiscite on, options that would resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status.” In the House report that is part of the legislation, it stipulates that the United States Department of Justice has the responsibility to review the plebiscite materials and inform Congress to disburse the funds.

One of the first legislations approved by the current government was a plebiscite with non-territorial options, which is set to take place on June 11, 2017. The plebiscite had two choices: Statehood and Separate Sovereignty from the United States. If Statehood does not win, then there will have been another plebiscite on October 8, 2017, in which people will have to choose between Free Associate State and Independence. The Commonwealth was excluded from the plebiscite. All of this changed with Boente’s letter

The U.S. Department of Justice determined that amendments to the legislation have to be made in order for the government of Puerto Rico to have access to the appropriated funds. One of the changes was to include the current territorial status as an option in the plebiscite. “Accordingly, any plebiscite that now seeks to resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status, as the Appropriations Act contemplates, should include the current territorial status as an option.”

The letter considers that the omission of this status option should not be based on the results of the 2012 plebiscite because of the controversies that arose around the results, as well as the political, economic and demographic changes that have recently occurred in Puerto Rico. The 2012 plebiscite had two steps. At that time the Popular Democratic Party encouraged followers to vote “yes” to the first question on change in the status, and then abstain from voting on the second question.

Another change recommended by the DOJ had to do with the language on the ballot concerning citizenship. The ballot read that statehood is the “only option that guarantees the American citizenship by birth in Puerto Rico.” For Boente, “this statement is inaccurate when considered in the context of all available status options, as under current law, Puerto Ricans have an unconditional statutory right to birthright citizenship.” Furthermore, the letter says that if Puerto Ricans choose independence, an assessment should be made about this issue. Basically, the DOJ is saying that Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship is complicated, and that there are other status options other than statehood that guarantee birthright citizenship. This argument goes in line with what has been published in Puerto Rico News and Centro Journal that Puerto Rican U.S. .citizenship is permanent and irreversible (see citizenship section).

Additional recommendations have to do with the description of the free associated state, which the U.S. Department of Justice considers to be the same thing as independence. The DOJ says that free association should not be interpreted to be the same as enhanced commonwealth, which is found to be unconstitutional. For this purpose, independence and free associated state will be listed together in the plebiscite.

In the end, Governor Rosselló and the ruling New Progressive Party in Puerto Rico’s legislature amended the law that established the plebiscite. In the new version the current territorial status has been included. The new version of the plebiscite has three options: Statehood, Current Territorial Status, and Independence/Free Associated State.[1] Members of the Popular Democratic Party are against the inclusion of the term “Current Territorial Status” because it is not the name as the current status, which is known as Estado Libre Asociado (Commonwealth).[2] At the same time, leaders of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and Popular Democratic Party have determined that they will boycott the plebiscite and will start a campaign against it.[3]

Another approved amendment has to do with the elimination of any reference to U.S. citizenship. Boente says that Statehood is not the only option that guarantees U.S. citizenship and opens the door for citizenship to be part of other status options. After the law was amended, the materials were sent to the DOJ, where they will determine if they will recommend that Congress disburse the funds.

It will be difficult to have everything set before June 11. The DOJ said that they would need time to look at the revisions, and if it is approved they will notify Congress to allocate the funds. It is a process that is going to take time and could affect the date of the plebiscite.

[1] David Cordero, “Nuevas definiciones para las opciones de estatus en plebiscito,” https://www.metro.pr/pr/noticias/2017/04/17/nuevas-definiciones-opciones...

[2] Gloria Ruiz Kuilan, “Hernández Colón: Ese plebiscito no vale na,” http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/nota/hernandezcoloneseplebis...

[3] Alex Figueroa Cancel, “El PIP promoverá un boicot contra el plebiscito enmendado,” http://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/nota/elpippromoveraunboicotc...

Victor R. Martinez
Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 10:45am