Washington - No other statehood process went as far as the 1989-1991 process –three decades this week-. That was the last tri-partisan effort to ask the federal government to consult Puerto Rico about its political future.
On January 17, 1989 the leaders of Puerto Rico´s three major electoral parties signed a joint letter to President George W. Bush and Congressional leaders requesting a referendum legislation to address Puerto Rico´s political status. They were governor Rafael Hernández Colón, Popular Democratic Party (PPD); Baltasar Corrada del Río, New Progressive Party (PNP); and Rubén Berríos Martínez, Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP).
“The vast majority of Puerto Ricans wish to express their view on our political status. The people wish to be consulted,” said newly reelected governor Hernández Colón in his January 2 inaugural address, urging the federal government to make public its position regarding statehood for the island. Hernández Colón had been reelected on November 1988 for his third term as governor of Puerto Rico.
That joint letter represented a recognition of a reality that has not changed: Congress has never consulted Puerto Rico on status alternatives neither did they explain what they intend to do –other than furthering the colonial relationship, like they did with PROMESA-
Three weeks after that January 17 historic call made by the presidents of Puerto Rico´s three major parties, President George W. Bush expressed himself on the issue in his February 9 inaugural address: “I´ve long believed that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine their own political future. Personally, I strongly favor statehood. But I urge the Congress to take the necessary steps to allow the people to decide in a referendum.”
After many hearings on the issue, the House took another historic step by passing on October 10, 1990, “The Puerto Rico Self-determination Act”. Definitions on status alternatives –contrary to Senate´s intentions- were left to the report.
A bill offering status alternatives was never brought to the Senate floor. The further the issue got was in August, 1989, when the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources –under Democrat J.Bennet Johnston (Louisiana)- drafted three status-related bills what represented an effort to take the debate to other Committees.
On February 27, 1991, at the beginning of the 102nd Congress and when the House was evaluating the possibility to move a bill in the Senate, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources failed to pass its proposal by a 10-10 impasse. The week-long voting session was marked by expressions against granting in advance statehood for the island and in stressing cultural and economic differences between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Hernández Colón –who has been in treatment for Leukemia- described that process in a paper published by the University of Puerto Rico Law Review in 1997. His son José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral discussed that paper where the former governor said that the effort sought to amend failures in the 1967 referendum which, like recent ones, did not create advances in the relationship with the U.S.
According to Hernández Colón, the idea was that not only the government of the Commonwealth worked on a status bill for Puerto Rico but also that pro-statehood and independence leaders join the effort to show a representative and unified proposal.
The proposal included to set up a "Dialogue Committee on the Status of Puerto Rico" composed of former advisor to the governor José Berrocal; lawyer Benny Frankie Cerezo for the PNP and Fernando Martín representing the PIP. Cerezo was appointed by former governor Romero Barceló who reached the PNP presidency a month after the 1989 joint letter and led the statehood strategy. Romero Barceló was not available to answer questions from El Nuevo Día.
“That Dialogue Committee helped to temper obstacles between PNP and Popular representatives,” said former senator Martín, executive president of the PIP and the only living member of the Committee.
Martín considers that the process came to an end because the Senate Republican leadership understood the bill seemed like a “statehood offer” and said that they were not going to pass a bill that presented statehood as the alternative unless they were ready to grant it.
But he also thinks that the debate helped to highlight the colonial relationship with Puerto Rico. He recalls that moment when Hernández Colón introduced his enhanced Commonwealth proposal at the Senate first hearing on the issue, in July, 1989 and senator Johnston asked him about the transference of sovereign powers if statehood were to be granted and the governor answered they were remain in the hands of Congress. Martín also said the President Bush “did nothing” to revive the bill.
Jeffrey Farrow, former executive director of what was then the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, agrees with Martín that the 1989-1991 process marked the debate to clarify the Commonwealth alternatives (ELA, in Spanish) that the PPD has proposed in Congress can only be a “territorial status” and that under that relationship, improvements are changes in laws and federal programs.
He said what PPD leaders have traditionally intended in terms of autonomy, requires sovereignty, and “that full equality in federal programs implies contributing to the federal Treasury, which (Luis) Muñoz Marín recognized,” noted
Farrow was also Bill Clinton´s White House Task Force on Puerto Rico and is now an advisor to pro-statehood groups.
For Farrow, the defeat in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was excessively reflected as a vote against statehood and added that Hernández Colón wanted to close the process under that “perception”.
In his paper, Hernández Colón stressed the expressions of then senator Don Nickles (Oklahoma) who during the final debate in February 1991, stressed that the independence proposal is a unilateral decision by the residents of Puerto Rico and raised questions a the possibility of a supermajority to consider a statehood request.
“If there was something we learnt in that process between 1989 and 1991 was that the statehood alternative is a poison pill,” said Martín. Meanwhile, for Farrow, the process showed that statehood and independence are alternatives to permanently resolved the island´s political status.
After the approval of the 1990 bill, mainly prepared by Farrow, the House passed bills seeking to regulate a status referendum on the island on two occasions, in 1998 and 2010. None of them was considered by the Senate.
In 2000, when Farrow was part of the Clinton administration, Congress passed legislation to consult with the White House the status alternatives of a plebiscite to be hold in San Juan. The bill did not call the attention of Sila María Calderón (PPD) government.
After the 2012 referendum, when Puerto Ricans didn´t approve the territorial status, the Barack Obama administration, at the request of José Serrano (New York) and then Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, introduced a similar bill -signed into law in 2014- which proposed the U.S. Department of Justice to certify the alternatives of a referendum.
Although the government of Puerto Rico started that process for the 2017 plebiscite, they did not wait for the certification. In that referendum, statehood obtained 97 percent of the votes amid a boycott from opposition parties and the lowest voters turnout in the history of status referendums.
A few months ago, PNP Republican allies such as Rob Bishop (Utah) recommended to call a “statehood: yes or no” referendum in consultation with the U.S Department of Justice. For Bishop, the lack of that certification has allowed Trump´s government to disregard the results.
“It is difficult to reach congressional consensus to pass a new bill (other than that of 2014) without an undisputed statehood proposal that comes from the territory,” said Farrow.
Hernández Mayoral, close to PPD federal affairs, said that his father thought that to moving forward in this debate requires “working together but that he does not see willingness for that,” right now.
However, Martín considers that the process should conclude in a “vote for alternatives that put an end to the territorial situation –of the island- and that they count on the US commitment to implement them.”
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