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A false majority for statehood

Puerto Rico’s legislature just approved yet another statehood referendum to be held during the summer of 2017. This will represent the fourth vote in the last 25 years on the matter as well as the latest attempt by the statehood movement to squeeze another star onto the U.S. flag. Nevertheless, a closer look reveals a scheme on behalf of the ruling New Progressive Party (NPP) to create an artificial majority in favor of statehood. Their tactics involve trickery in wording ballot options in a manner that will favor their preference.

A quick review of how they have maneuvered previous votes on the matter reveal their intentions. The first of NPP-authored referendum occurred in 1993. The options included statehood, independence, or a continuation of the current commonwealth model. After aggressive campaigning on all sides, commonwealth won with 48.6%, with statehood trailing second at 46.3%. Despite the commonwealth win championed by the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP), the NPP won reelection three years later and again began conjuring another referendum.

In 1998, a second NPP referendum was rolled out. This time, the question was revised with the intention to split PDP sympathizers between various options and thus produce a plural majority for the statehood option. Along with commonwealth, “free association” was added to the ballot options. With this, the NPP hoped to capitalize upon technical divisions within PDP ranks, whom have long debated among themselves whether or not to continue the current territorial commonwealth status or developed it under a United Nations-defined form of association. After intense court battles a “none of the above” option was added to the ballot; ultimately winning the vote with 50.5%. The NPP soonafter lost the general elections with the PDP in power for two terms.

Upon returning to power in the 2008 elections the NPP initiated new efforts for a third referendum, held in 2012. This time, there would be two questions: first, voters were asked whether or not Puerto Rico should continue under the current commonwealth model. The second question asked citizens what they were to prefer in case that commonwealth lost, with the options being statehood, independence, or free association. Knowing that the commonwealth option alone no longer commandeered a majority of votes, the NPP knew that if it were eliminated from the ballot that it would be inevitable for statehood to win with a clear majority.

With no “none of the above option”, the PDP machinery ran a blank ballot campaign, hoping to protest what it saw to be an unfair referendum. Though the NPP expectantly won the vote by 61.2%, once blank votes were factored, its numbers stood at a mere 44.4%. The NPP’s marketing strategy was foiled, as the party’s exaggeratingly inflated majority felt upon deaf ears of the U.S. Congress. Though they carry no legal weight, the blank votes demonstrated that the majority of Puerto Ricans reject statehood.

Now, NPP is back in power and once again is cooking up another round of voting. The questions have been carefully crafted to produce the super majority it always hoped for, with the options being statehood and independence with “free association” brushed off by the NPP as a modality of independence. “Commonwealth” was eliminated from the ballot in its entirety. PPD proposals to include commonwealth and free association as their own ballot options were shot down. Finally, the law which mandates the vote includes specific text meant to not tally blank votes.

The law referendum represents quite possibly the most obviously biased of the NPP’s initiatives. Even the Puerto Rican Independence Party voted against the measure; a rarity for a party that often aligns itself with the NPP to erode PPD-supported referendum options. The blatantly skewed law narrative reads as a manifesto, clamoring for statehood as a means to conquer Puerto Rican poverty. Not to mention, lawmakers carefully assured that the bill number would be one in sync with their goals: Senate Bill 51.

The NPP has rushed a number of controversial bills through the state legislature in recent weeks, including labor reforms that rock both private and public sector employees. The biggest austerity measures are soon to follow and should echo the protests and strikes that characterized the precious NPP administration. This ill-timed referendum is simply a rhetoric effort to pump much-needed political capital into the NPP, who won the 2016 elections with the smallest mandate in the island’s history. So journalists and analysts beware: the coming statehood vote is far from transparent, participatory, fair, or well intended.

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A democratizar el Partido Popular

La sacudida dentro del Partido Popular ha tocado al alto liderato, iniciando un debate sobre la presidencia, la elección de los miembros de la Junta de Gobierno y las posiciones de liderazgo dentro de la delegación legislativa. Mientras tanto, el elector de la base, los líderes de barrios y los presidentes municipales esperan pacientemente a que se resuelven las cosas “allá arriba”, estando como en el limbo. Sin embargo, yo soy de los que cree que lo que hace falta en el PPD es una buena primaria interna y asambleas generales con más frecuencia para activar a su base y dejar que sus miembros se expresen.

Mientras todos siguen teorizando sobre las razones de la abstención popular, pocos han recomendado lo que a veces suena como cliché: dejar que el pueblo decida. Hace falta devolver el segundo apellido al partido y democratizarlo. Así mirando hacia abajo y no hacia arriba, hay que atender al electorado tan frustrado que no salió a votar. La militancia popular no debe estar limitada a ser funcionario de colegio o avanzador de algún candidato: debe también involucrar la toma de decisiones importantes.

Las reorganizaciones municipales deben ser abiertas, transparentes y participativas, dejando que cualquier ciudadano inscrito en el partido pueda opinar y postularse para posiciones de liderato – sin maquineo o brazo torcido. Las estructuras de barrio deben ser organizaciones representativas, basadas en interés y activismo, en vez de existir únicamente para servir al presidente municipal. Estos organismos de unidad deberían poder escoger sus representantes a los comités municipales, quienes en turno escojan a sus delegados de manera democrática. Así se construye un partido de abajo para arriba, en vez de pedir, cada cuatro años, que un alcalde o presidente municipal prepare una lista de sus delegados.

Vamos a abrir las puertas de la democracia y vamos a perder el miedo a las consultas internas y las primarias. Utilizando como ejemplo las últimas dos primarias para candidato a Comisionado Residente (del 2000 y 2016), en ambos casos los ganadores de la primaria sacaron más votos que nuestros candidatos a gobernación. Las primarias y la democracia interna tienen gran potencial para fortalecer a los partidos y evitar que su base se sienta como testigo pasivo de lo que pasa en su partido.

Sin duda hay mucha incertidumbre. ¿Quién debe ser nuestro presidente? ¿Debemos expulsar ciertos candidatos a recomendación del presidente? ¿Cómo llenaremos vacantes? ¿Sancionamos a un legislador ‘disidente’? ¿Cómo procedemos con el estatus después de Sánchez vs. ELA? Estas son decisiones y posturas que han tomado detrás de puertas cerradas por décadas y sin el insumo del pueblo popular. La participación de la base no debe estar limitada a una asamblea general una vez cada cuatro años. ¿Por qué se abstuvo el pueblo popular? ¡Vamos a preguntarlo!

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Puerto Rican Statehood is at it Again

The island of Puerto Rico has long been held up in a seemingly endless debate over whether or not it should become the 51st state of the union, remain its course as a territory or free association, or obtain outright independence. The discussion traditionally heats up towards the end of each election cycle, with this previous election being no different. The incoming pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló championed himself as the last governor of the colony; smear campaigns painted his opponent as separatist and anti-American; and a mysterious PAC appeared seemingly out of nowhere in previous weeks to promote statehood. Finally, Rosselló vowed to initiate special elections as part of his “Plan Tennessee” to vote for federal senators and representatives; promising that statehood was right around the corner. Statehood is further away than ever but politicians still find ways to squeeze out political capital from promises of increased federal funding and prosperity.

The statehood option has failed at the polls when referendum on the matter were carried out in 1967, 1993, 1998 and 2012. In the latest, statehood won what appeared to be super majority of 61% though a closer look shows that the statehood vote has not grown in decades. The anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party boycotted said vote and rallied its followers to protest by submitting blank ballots. Once factored in, only 44% of voters opted for statehood. Nevertheless, four years of political turmoil, heavy emigration, fiscal chaos, and a recently imposed federal control board have provided a ripe environment to prey on voters’ fears of further cuts in federal funding or economic instability. Roselló’s New Progressive Party (NPP) has rammed statehood down voters’ throats and by doing so, won enough votes to pull in a 3 point win. In fact, months prior Roselló had won a heated primary arguing that he was somehow more of a “statehooder” than his NPP opponent.

Only time will tell the effectiveness of Roselló’s efforts, though it sure appears to be an uphill battle. For the last 12 years Puerto Rico has elected pro-statehood Resident Commissioners; the island’s non-voting representative in the U.S. House. During said period, three House bills have been introduced in both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Houses with the latest titled the “Puerto Rican Statehood Admission Process Act”. Two died in the House and one in the Senate, with 76% percent of Republicans voting against. As with previous bills which survived long enough to reach a vote, the Republican Party has traditionally opposed Puerto Rican self determination out of fear that islanders might actually elect to become a state.

For the time being, the federal government seems to be more concerned with fiscal matters, entirely overlooking the Puerto Rican Statehood Admission Process Act in order to streamline the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act. Approval of the Act’s federal control board took only seven months from the first bill to its final approval, while discussion concerning Puerto Rico’s territorial status has been near stagnant for the last six decades. Nor does it seem that the matter will be a top priority of the incoming administration, with Trump’s public policy advisor and Puerto Rico liaison Alan Cobb downplaying the matter last July, stating that statehood was a “long path” and that the fiscal situation “doesn’t help”. The lukewarm Republican Party platform, for example, calls on yet another referendum to measure the electorate’s preference.

Supposing that Puerto Rican voters were to vote heavily in favor of statehood, and even if the Republican-controlled Congress were to put aside their traditional opposition to an admissions bill, it is to be seen whether or not the matter will find its place in an already charged political agenda which includes affordable health care, defense and trade. With Trump’s promise to oust up to 3 million immigrants from the country, statehood might not be apt for a presidency mired by American nationalism and rocky relations with Latinos. But at the end of the day, despite the far fetched idea the proposal continues to be capitalized upon by politicians eager to win another election.

Republished from The Hill.

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