Historic journey of the plebiscite (horizontal-x3)
Despite the controversy, the plebiscite proposal as a mechanism to define the political future of Puerto Rico finds firm roots in the late nineteenth century. (Gerald López Cepero)

Discord appeared from the beginning. The proposal to hold a status plebiscite did not find support among opposition parties because there are discrepancies regarding the political models that the government included on the ballot paper.

This is not a new fight. The controversy also circled the four prior consultations held after the approval of the Constitution of the Commonwealth (ELA, Spanish acronym) in 1952.

Despite the controversy, the plebiscite proposal as a mechanism to define the political future of Puerto Rico finds firm roots in the late nineteenth century, shortly after the invasion of the United States in 1898.

Puerto Rican politician and thinker Eugenio María de Hostos proposed a plebiscite to address the political situation following the imposition of a military government on the Island, recalled Rafael Cox Alomar, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC

This claim was echoed by Jose de Diego, who in 1917 submitted a joint resolution before the House of Representatives to call a plebiscite in the 1920 elections.

After fifty years and several failed attempts by the government of Luis Muñoz Marín to seek federal legislation that allowed the "culmination" of the ELA before Puerto Ricans went to the polls for the first time to begin the task - still unfinished - to define their political situation .

The first plebiscite was held on July 23rd 1967 under the administration of the governor Roberto Sánchez Vilella. It emerged as a recommendation of a commissioned status report after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation to analyze the political situation on the Island to address the claims of the sectors that demanded the right to self-determination or demanded to expand the extents of the ELA .

"Although it is true that the plebiscite emerges from a recommendation of that report, there was never a link with the White House or Congress to respect the results," said Cox Alomar, who was a candidate of the Popular Democratic Party  (PPD) for Resident Commissioner in 2012.

In the only referendum conducted by the PPD, Puerto Ricans voted for the ELA, independence or statehood. ELA obtained 60% of the votes, statehood, 39%, and independence, .06%.

With this first plebiscite, the call for electoral withdrawal was released. Because they  understand that the exercise in the polls constituted an attempt by the PPD to legitimize the ELA and the colony "by consent", the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), the Pro Independence Movement and the Socialist League called the boycott of the plebiscite.

The Puerto Rican Republican Statehood Party, that advocated for the annexationist formula, also adopted the position of abstention. This decision caused a fatal crack in the community. A dissident group decided to insert itself in the consultation to defend the annexation to the United States and, later, it founded the New Progressive Party (NPP).

A year later, that new party won  the elections of 1968. The arrival of Luis A. Ferré to the Santa Catalina Palace, broke the popular hegemony, that had won every election since 1952.

Despite winning that plebiscite, the ELA began to show the first traces of wear, according to Cox Alomar and journalist Antonio Quiñones Calderón.

In 1967, it obtained 20% less of the votes got during the consultation of ratification of its constitution and 67,399 votes less than those obtained by Sanchez Vilella when he came into office.

A tendency appears

According to  Wilma Reverón Collazo, co-president of the Hostosiano National Independence Movement, that first referendum also marked several tendencies that half a century later are repeated: no plebiscite consultation has counted on the consensus or the participation of all the political parties and they have held behind international law.

"There has always been a boycott of all or part of the independence movement and part of one of the two main parties that turn in power", said Reverón Collazo.

No consultation has been binding on the US government, nor has it been preceded by a non-partisan education campaign that clearly and comprehensively explains the consequences of selecting one or another political status.

Twenty-six years after the first status consultation, the proposal to address the problem through a plebiscite appears again on the Island's political horizon.

One year after coming into office, Pedro Rosselló González directed the first of two plebiscites. In the consultation of November 14, 1993, the three classic options return: ALS, independence and statehood.

For the second time, the ELA prevailed with 49% of the votes, 11% less than what was obtained in the first consultation.

On his part, statehood, began to close the gap with free state. It obtained 46% of the votes, despite getting 150,673 less than those that Rosselló González achieved when he won his first term. Independence, represented by the PIP, reached 4% of the votes and maintained its historical basis. Other pro-independence groups boycotted the plebiscite.

"That plebiscite has no result. Advocates of ELA go to Congress, but they are ignored ", said Quiñones Calderón, who was governor Ferré´s Press Secretary.

Swap the Plebiscite

After winning a second term with more than one million votes, Rosselló González insisted on a second consultation. Four status options were part of the plebiscite of December 13th, 1998: for the first time, along with the three usual alternatives, the free association option was included.

Displeased with the definitions of status contained in the plebiscite organized by an annexationist government, the PPD and a sector of the independence not affiliated to the PIP pleaded for a fifth column, which proposed as an option "None of the above."

This option won 51% of the votes. Statehood conquered 47%, independence 3%, free association .3% and ELA obtained 993 votes.

"The popular ones turned in the column of “none of the above”  because they did not include the ELA that we aspire. Ironically, that exercise was what drove statehood away", explained Cox Alomar.

Fourteen years later, former governor Luis Fortuño Burset promoted another status query. As a strategic move, he held the plebiscite on the same day of the general election, November 6th, 2012, in which he was heading for re-election.

This consultation had two questions. In the first instance, the voter should respond if he agreed to maintain the current territorial political status of ELA. 54% of voters voted "No" and 46% answered "Yes".

The second question was limited to the predilection among the non-territorial status options. In percentage terms, statehood obtained 61% of the votes, sovereign ELA 33% and independence 6%. But if blank ballots and the votes that the sovereign ELA received are added together, these options exceed the universe of suffrages that received statehood by 119,181.

As in the 1998 plebiscite, the PPD appealed the status options available to voters and called on their host to reject the ELA definition on the ballot.

In tune with that position, he called on the red electors to vote for "Yes" in the first question as a gesture of rejection to the annexationist government and to leave the second question blank.

The current consultation

The 2012 plebiscite led the US Congress and then-President Barack Obama to approve the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which set the parameters for a future plebiscite to receive the endorsement of the Federal Justice Department, an essential condition for Washington to allocate $ 2.5 million for the expenses of the referendum.

But the consultation approved by the present administration without the support of the opposition parties faced pitfalls at the federal level.

Initially, the government of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares excluded the option of ELA of the consultation and only included the options of "Statehood" and "Free Association / Independence".

On April 13th, 2017, the US Department of Justice proposed changes in the design of the plebiscite to incorporate the option of the current territorial status.

The letter signed by the interim Undersecretary of Justice, Dana Boente, questioned the definition of statehood that would appear on the ballot, because they understood that it was misleading when indicating that "statehood is the only option that guarantees US citizenship by birth in Puerto Rico".

According to Boente, the alternative of  ELA contemplates the right to the citizenship. In the letter, Boente also informed Rosselló Nevares that he would not approve the consultation and that, therefore, the funds allocated by the Consolidated Appropiations Act would not be disbursed.

In order to address these concerns, Rosselló Nevares incorporated the current territorial status in the consultation - not mentioning ELA-. But the Justice Department called for the postponement of the consultation to evaluate the changes. The president did not accept the condition.

.In the middle of this scenario, with calls for boycott and questioning the investment of $ 6.9 million in the consultation when the Island is going through a fiscal crisis, the fifth plebiscite of status in the history of Puerto Rico is celebrated.

"The process of statehood is long. There are states that have held 10 or 12 plebiscites before obtaining admission", said Quiñones Calderón, who favors the consultation.

He asserted that this type of electoral exercise uncovers the colonial virtue of ELA, which has been consigned by the White House, Congress, the United Nations and the PPD leadership itself.

For Cox Alomar and Reverón Collazo, the plebiscite will have no political consequences beyond the border of the NPP. They advocate, instead, for the method of the constitutional status assembly to guide the future of the Island.

"When NPP people realize that the plebiscite is a waste of time, they will come to the same conclusion that we have to unite and use other tools like the status assembly, where there are no winners and losers and where there is equity in proposals and dialogue", he concluded.


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