“We shall continue to encourage the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in its political growth and economic development in accordance with the wishes of its people and the fundamental principle of self-determination.” So said the Republican party platform in August 20, 1956.
For over 50 years, every Republican president and every GOP platform has supported the right of self-determination for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. A bill that would turn that GOP commitment into law is currently moving through the House with 57 Republican co-sponsors. As soon as this Thursday, Congress could decide whether the 4 million citizens of Puerto Rico have the same right as other Americans to determine their own fate.
The Puerto Rico Democracy Act, H.R. 2499, would set up a process to clarify the sunlit American island’s vague political status. Unlike the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico faces no constitutional challenges to the clarification of its status. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the U.S. This bill would authorize the Puerto Rican government to conduct a referendum asking voters if they wish to keep or change their current political status. If a majority of voters want a change, a second referendum would be held to ask if they prefer statehood, independence, or sovereignty. The legislation doesn’t favor any particular status option. It is not, as some have mischaracterized it, a statehood bill. Because Puerto Rico is subject to Congressional authority under the Constitution’s Territorial Clause, any referendum result seeking change would still require congressional enabling legislation. This legislation only takes the first of many steps to resolve a longstanding issue: Do we or do we not believe in the principle of democratic self-determination for Puerto Rico? The Republican party has said that it does. Now comes the test.
At a moment when the GOP is struggling to find its footing with Hispanic voters, this legislation is politically important. It writes into law what Republicans have etched in our hearts: that America is for all Americans. Republicans who are afraid that Puerto Rico might send only Democrats to Congress might check their concerns with the island’s governor, Luis Fortuño, a speaker at the 2008 GOP convention. Fortuño is a not only a Reagan conservative who has been elected island-wide twice in the last five years — in 2008, he was elected by 225,000 votes, the biggest margin of electoral victory in 44 years. While mainland Republicans struggled in ’08, the GOP bucked the tide in Puerto Rico, with victories that included the governor’s seat, president of the Senate, speaker of the House, Senate majority leader, mayor of San Juan, and a majority of mayors in the 78 municipalities, as well as the majority of state legislators throughout the island. These results are no surprise. Polls tell us that 78 percent of the island’s residents are pro-life; 86 percent say prayer should be allowed in schools; 75 percent say displaying the Ten Commandments on government property should be allowed; a majority supports vouchers for private schools. An overwhelming majority of Puerto Rican citizens embrace socially conservative values.
At heart, however, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act is about something bigger than partisan politics. It promotes an ideal supported by the leadership of both parties, from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence. It confirms that the principles of democracy, inclusiveness, and self-determination belong to all U.S. citizens. History demonstrates that when America includes those who haven’t been included before, everyone benefits. Republicans have historically fought for democracy and self-determination abroad; we can defend them no less at home. This Thursday we have an opportunity to put our votes where our principles are. I hope Republicans take advantage of it.
– Alex Castellanos is a Republican political consultant and American citizen who was born in Habana, Cuba.