Washington - Two years after the 2017 referendum, the government of Puerto Rico has not taken concrete steps in favor of calling a new vote, despite the fact that more than six months ago the Republican leadership of the House Committee on Natural Resources warned that “a statehood: yes-or-no” referendum will be required before that proposal can advance.
The lack of legislation by the majority of the New Progressive Party (PNP) or concrete action before the office of U.S. Attorney General William Barr may be a message that the leadership of the Puerto Rican government - although it has not taken a definitive position- is inclined to call the next plebiscite with the November 2020 general election.
Tying the next referendum to the November 2020 general election would represent an attempt by the PNP to mobilize statehood voters dissatisfied with the government of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares or his party, according to opposition leaders.
Since February 27, the PNP leadership has approved the idea of organizing a statehood: yes-or-no referendum on or before the November 2020 general election, which, based on a 2014 federal law, would allow the U.S. Secretary of Justice to approve the status options to be included on the State Elections Commission's (SEC) ballot and the educational campaign.
The federal law, then, authorizes the U.S. Department of Justice to contribute $2.5 million for the SEC educational campaign.
Although the Rosselló Nevares administration began conversations with the U.S. Department of Justice, based on federal law, in view of the June 11, 2017 plebiscite, it never waited for a final decision by Jeff Sessions, U.S. General Attorney.
Without the federal Justice Department approval and amid a boycott by opposition parties and a voter turnout of only 23 percent, on June 11, 2017, statehood obtained the support of 97 percent of the voters.
However, two years later Congress has not recognized the referendum as a step toward statehood, nor has it given way to any of the three pro-statehood measures filed during this term.
In letters sent in late November to the government of Puerto Rico and to former acting federal Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, former chairman and now Republican spokesman at the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rob Bishop (Utah), took a message from the Republican leadership of that committee stating that “the inability” of the Department of Justice to validate the 2017 vote in time has enabled the opposition to challenge them.
Bishop, then, joined the idea in Washington that a low voter turnout and the lack of federal Justice approval invalidated the results of the 2017 referendum.
Both the administration of PresidentDonald Trump and Republican Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources - overseeing any status-related process in the Senate - have stated that the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites, which the PNP government considers as victories of statehood, have not reflected consensus from Puerto Rican voters.
The chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Democrat Raúl Grijalva plans to convene a hearing on the status issue soon but has ruled out a process aimed at statehood because of the low voter turnout in the referendum held two years ago.
Statehood in 90 days
On March 28, Puerto Rican Democrat Darren Soto (Florida) proposed an ambitious bill that seeks the admission of Puerto Rico as a state in 90 days, without any federal consultation to voters.
Soto has the support of 14 Democrats and four Republicans, just one-third of the support of Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez's previous bill, proposing to turn Puerto Rico into an incorporated U.S. territory and to create a Congressional Task Force on the legal changes required to turn the island into a state.
Meanwhile, González plans to introduce her own bill, which - according to Congressman Soto - would be in line with a new local referendum that has the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice. However, for such a measure to have some impact on this Congress would require a local referendum this year.
General Attorney Barr took office on February 14. But, so far, no one has knocked on his door to officially propose to support a referendum.
Commissioner González said that the General Attorney has been busy with other matters, referring to the report of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
González said that in due course, she will take her efforts directly to Barr because she does not believe "it is a matter that (the secretary) should delegate to a subordinate."
Although she has made it clear that she prefers the next referendum to be held this year, González said Governor Rosselló Nevares and the Legislature will decide on the date of the plebiscite.
Rosselló Nevares - who has promised that Puerto Rico will be a federal state in August 2022 - said in early February that, if it were up to him, a statehood referendum would be held "tomorrow," in stressing his interest in having it called "as soon as possible."
In April, in his State of the Commonwealth address, Rosselló Nevares affirmed that he will promote a statehood: yes-or-no referendum as part of the mechanism to definitively resolve Puerto Rico's colonial status.
Loves me, loves me not
La Fortaleza, however, did not answer a request for information on whether Governor Rosselló Nevares has raised the issue to Barr.
Since January, Rosselló Nevares has unsuccessfully been trying to have a meeting with President Trump on the federal assistance after Hurricane María.
Trump has described the island's government as corrupt and incompetent. And, according to sources, Rosselló Nevares' expression that he would like to “punch the bully in the mouth”, even figuratively, has not been forgotten in the White House.
When Republican Bishop proposed a “statehood: yes-or-no” resuming consultations with the U.S. Department of Justice, Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos "Johnny" Méndez agreed with Commissioner González - his great ally - that the referendum should be held in 2019.
PNP Representative José Enrique "Quiquito" Meléndez favors holding the plebiscite this year and thinks there is time to legislate a vote this summer.
However, Meléndez said that "these are matters for the governor to negotiate with the presidents" of the chambers.
Ideally, "what we should have is a referendum to accept the conditions of admission, yes or no," said former Governor Carlos Romero Barceló. But that would require legislation from Congress, which, after the 2017 plebiscite, seems out of the question this Congress.
For the president of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and Senator Aníbal José Torres, the inaction by the PNP government before the federal court proves they know about rejection to their efforts in Washington on the recent plebiscites, even though they have had control of the government, the Resident Commissioner office and the branches of U.S. parties.
Juan Dalmau, senator and secretary general of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), agrees that the PNP government's initiatives in Washington, including the theory about the Tennessee plan, "have exploded in their faces."
The purpose is electoral
Torres and Dalmau are convinced that, with or without the approval of the federal Justice Department, the government of Rosselló Nevares will seek to secure a referendum in the next general elections.
"They're hoping that even if it's holding their nose for the bad smell of voting for the current governor," the PNP will go out and vote, said senator Dalmau, who has urged –as in 2017- that the referendum is statehood versus Puerto Rican national sovereignty (free association and independence).
Senator Torres indicated that calling the vote for November 2020 would be a way for the PNP to try to get some voters to stop thinking "about how they have governed."
Torres said he perceives that the PNP will continue "promising a solution that has been presented in rigged exclusionary processes, without any commitment from U.S. Congress.
However, Torres said they have sent a message to the U.S. Justice Department and will participate in the debate if the PNP government insists on calling another referendum.
Late last week, separately, Puerto Rican Democratic Congresswomen Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez affirmed that instead of a process of admission of Puerto Rico as a 51st state, the federal government should implement a process of self-determination that is binding on the United States.
Velázquez told Radio Isla Friday that Puerto Rico must choose between status alternatives outside the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Ocasio Cortez said that the status alternatives are statehood and independence and that previous plebiscites on the island have been like polls, given the lack of commitment by the federal government.
For Ocasio Cortez, moreover, the statehood admission process for Washington D.C. is not comparable to that of Puerto Rico, which is a colony and requires a process of self-determination.
Congresswoman Velázquez said she has discussed with other colleagues the possibility of introducing new status legislation.
Like pro-statehood measures, any other legislation would face, however, the fact that since January 2014, Congress proposed the government of Puerto Rico to hold another plebiscite whose status alternatives and an educational campaign would be certified by the Attorney General.
Any legislation in favor of a comprehensive status process with different status options will also have to overcome the Trump administration's refusal to address the issue and the PNP government's insistence that Puerto Rico has already voted for statehood.
Although the language of the 2014 federal law does not bind Congress, former co-president of the Bill Clinton´s White House Task Force on Puerto Rico and now an advisor to statehood groups, Jeffrey Farrow, believes that this is the beginning of a process of self-determination.
One of the intrigues about the U.S. Justice Department, said Senator Dalmau, is whether the Trump administration will be willing to endorse a statehood: yes-or-no referendum, which - although not forcing Congress - some may want to interpret as an offer of statehood.