GovernorLuis Fortuno (PNP)
RepresentativeRes. Com. Pedro Pierluisi (D)
Puerto Rico has a unique history. For four centuries, from Columbus’ landing in 1493 until the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony, and for three centuries the port of San Juan was the gathering place for its annual convoy of gold and silver from the Americas to Spain. Today, with nearly 4 million people (more than Oregon or Connecticut), it is the largest American territory. Sixty years ago, it was “the poorhouse of the Caribbean,” heavily populated, and devoted almost entirely to sugar and coffee cultivation. Now, Puerto Rico has a recognizably First World economy, although it has lagged other Latin America powerhouses in recent years. The island’s economy contracted from 2006 to 2008 as unemployment rose to 12%. Puerto Ricans of all political stripes rejoiced at the Supreme Court nomination in June 2009 of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and who has long proclaimed her pride in her Puerto Rican heritage.
Puerto Rico has elected a resident commissioner to Congress since 1900, the only member of Congress with a four-year term, and its residents have been American citizens since 1917. But it didn’t elect its own governor until 1948. From the 1940s until the early 1960s, Puerto Rico was transformed by Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin and his Popular Democratic Party. Muñoz initiated “Operation Bootstrap” to lure businesses to Puerto Rico with promises of low-wage labor and government-built factories and tax exemptions. Muñoz also developed Puerto Rico’s commonwealth form of government—in Spanish, Estado Libre Asociado (ELA): Free Associated State—approved by referendum in 1952. Under ELA, Puerto Rico is part of the United States for purposes of international trade, foreign policy and war, but has its own laws, taxes and representative government. It is not subject to federal income taxes and is not eligible for all federal benefits, though some have been approved by Congress. Puerto Rico has also developed its own political parties: Muñoz’s Popular Democrats (the Spanish acronym is PPD), the New Progressives (PNP) who favor statehood, and two small Independence parties.
The commonwealth solution, by its own terms, was open to amendment, and ever since Muñoz retired in 1964, the central issue in Puerto Rico’s politics has been status: Should the island continue or modify ELA, should it seek statehood, or should it seek independence? For many years, there was gradual movement toward statehood. In the July 1967 referendum, conducted when the Popular Democrats were in power, Puerto Ricans voted for ELA over statehood 60%-39%. In the November 1993 referendum, conducted with PNP Gov. Pedro Rosselló in office, the vote was 48% for ELA, 46% for statehood. In March 1998, the U.S. House voted 209-208 for a referendum setting terms for statehood. This was a project of Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who hoped to attract Hispanic votes, and of Natural Resources Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, who saw in statehood backers’ demands echoes of Alaska’s fight for statehood. But the bill went nowhere in the U.S. Senate. Rosselló ordered a referendum on his terms, which were unlikely to be accepted in Congress, in December 1998; 47% voted for statehood and 50% for “none of the above,” the option favored by the PPD. Independence has low levels of support (4% in 2008), primarily from university students.
More recently, the action on status has moved from the island to the mainland. In December 2005, a White House task force, originally set up during President Bill Clinton’s administration, finally reported. It recommended a two-step referendum, with Puerto Ricans both on the island and on the mainland first voting on whether to consider a change in the current ELA status, and then, if they favored a change, choosing between statehood and independence. A bill incorporating this recommendation was sponsored by Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., and then-Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño of the PNP in 2006. The approach was criticized by Gov. Aníbal Acevedo, who argued that the two-step approach would frustrate the wishes of the majorities or pluralities that had voted for ELA in previous referenda and would produce a verdict for an option, statehood, which clearly lacked majority support. Acevedo called for “enhanced commonwealth,” under which Puerto Rico could set its own foreign and trade policies and opt out of federal law as negotiated with Congress. To advance this, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., sponsored a bill in 2007 authorizing a constitutional convention on the island in which delegates could decide on status and define Puerto Rico’s relationship with the mainland.
In October 2007, the Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill requiring a referendum by the end of 2009 on whether Puerto Rico should maintain its current status, with an amendment by Velasquez declaring that if the result was negative, then Congress would recognize the Puerto Rico government’s “inherent authority” to decide between holding a constitutional convention or holding a second referendum on status. But the bill never came to the floor. In December 2007, the Bush administration issued a report arguing that Puerto Rico had only three options—statehood, remaining a territory or independence—and that Acevedo’s “new commonwealth” was unconstitutional.
There may be action on this issue in the near future. The PNP won a sweeping victory in the November 2008 elections. Fortuño was elected governor, and Pedro Pierluisi was elected to represent Puerto Rico in Washington. President Barack Obama in a letter to Fortuño pledged to “enable the question of Puerto Rico’s status to be resolved” in his first term. When it was read at Fortuño’s inauguration it got a standing ovation. In May 2009, Pierluisi and Serrano introduced a bill similar to Fortuño’s. The bill had 147 co-sponsors from both parties. If it passes the House and Senate, there is little doubt that Fortuño and the PNP-controlled Puerto Rico Senate would authorize a second referendum and that statehood could prevail.
A vote for statehood would raise the question whether Congress would accept Puerto Rico as a state under the terms and conditions advocated by the PNP (Spanish as an official language, for example, and continuation of Puerto Rico’s eligibility under certain welfare laws). As for mainland politicians, Democrats and many Republicans assume that as a state Puerto Rico would be solidly Democratic, with five or six House members, though Fortuño, a Republican, and Senate President Kenneth McClintock, a statehood backer and Democrat, argue that it would actually lean Republican. McClintock points out that in the 1950s, almost everyone assumed that Hawaii would be Republican and Alaska Democratic, when it has turned out to be the other way around. Over the last century, Congress has admitted new states only when there has been a widespread consensus for statehood.
As the debate over status has gone on, Puerto Rico’s economy has been evolving, and not entirely in a positive direction. In the 1990s, Gov. Pedro Rosselló moved Puerto Rico away from big government, selling off the government-owned Navieras shipping line, telephone company and hospitals. Gov. Calderon moved a bit in the other direction in 2002, with a program investing $1 billion in the 700 poorest communities in the island, in infrastructure, education and health care programs. But none of this has spurred enough private sector growth. Puerto Rico has some of the lowest male work force participation in the world. Crime rates are much higher than on the mainland, and there is a new movement of bilingual professionals—nurses, policemen, doctors, teachers—from the island to mainland locations where fluency in Spanish is an asset. The Census Bureau estimates net outmigration of only 41,000—about 1% of the population—from 2000 to 2008.
The 2008 election seems to have broken a partisan deadlock in Puerto Rico, which had seen its leaders elected by razor-thin margins in recent years. The PNP won big in 2008. Fortuño won in the governor’s race by eight percentage points, a large margin, and Pedro Pierluisi won the resident commissioner’s race by a similar vote. The PNP won in all eight Senate districts and in 31 of the 40 House of Representatives districts. Upon taking office, Fortuño announced that he hoped to cut government payrolls by attrition. Soon, however, he was announcing substantial layoffs, even as the government faced a $3.2 billion budget shortfall on a $9.5 billion budget.
One of the complaints of Puerto Rico’s New Progressives is that it cannot vote for president, despite efforts by PNP politicians over the years to change this. Puerto Rico does send delegates to the two mainland parties’ national conventions. Since Puerto Rico’s Democratic delegates in the past have voted as a bloc, while Democratic rules require most other states’ delegates to be split proportionately, in a divided Democratic convention (if there ever is one again) Puerto Rico theoretically has more leverage than all but a half dozen or so states.
For 2008, Puerto Rico Democrats planned to select delegates in caucuses on June 7, four days after the last scheduled primary. But after the March 4 primaries, when it became apparent that the contest between Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would likely continue until the last primaries, the PPD, allied with the national Democratic Party, decided to hold a primary on June 1, two days before the last primaries in Montana and South Dakota. Even though Clinton consistently led in the polls, many Puerto Rico politicians of both parties endorsed Obama, including the PNP’s Pierluisi and PPD Gov. Acevedo. Obama avoided taking a stance on the status issue. Clinton, many of whose constituents in New York have roots in Puerto Rico, got fewer major endorsements but campaigned heavily around the island, while Obama concentrated on Montana and South Dakota.
Clinton won a solid 68%-32% victory, winning 38 delegates to Obama’s 17. But this was far too few to overcome Obama’s delegate lead, and her hopes of coming out ahead in the popular vote were frustrated by the low turnout. Puerto Rico had 2.4 million registered voters, but only 384,000 voted in the June Democratic primary. Still, the Democratic turnout dwarfed Republican participation: only 208 people participated in the GOP’s caucus.