There was a rare bipartisan vote in the House the other day, but in this case, the bipartisanship did not do anything to advance the health of our democracy. By a vote of 223-169, with neither party leadership taking an official position, the House voted to order the people of Puerto Rico to enter into a two-step referenda process that effectively penalizes one of the two more popular choices among Puerto Ricans regarding their political status. This measure is designed to frustrate, not to elucidate, the will of the Puerto Rican people and the Senate should reject it.
Puerto Rico was invaded in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and annexed to the United States. At first, it was governed directly from Washington with an appointed governor. With the collapse of colonialism throughout the world after World War II, Puerto Rico was given a measure of home rule. It is considered a Commonwealth that is associated with the United States. Puerto Ricans elect their own governor and legislators. They have a non-voting representative in Congress, like residents of the District of Columbia. Unlike D.C., they do not get to vote for President. Puerto Ricans have fought under the American flag in ever war since they were annexed to the U.S. but they compete under their own flag in the Olympics and various international events.
A little less than half of the island’s residents support statehood and the drafters of the current bill designed their proposal to inflate the significance of that support. A little less than half of Puerto Ricans support maintaining the current status. Finally, a small group of islanders, between three and five percent, favor complete independence. A decision about something as momentous as political status should require a super-majority, but the new bill sets no such requirement. Instead, it orders a first "yes or no" referendum on the current status in which, presumably, statehood advocates and independistas would unite to forge a majority. In the second referendum, the current status would not be an option, and the natives would only be able to vote for statehood, independence or a yet weaker form of association with the U.S. akin to that of the Marshall Islands, a vote likely to favor the statehood option. In short, the proposal rigs the game against the current status and thus is an affront to democratic norms.
Why should Catholics care? It is difficult enough for Puerto Ricans to resist the encroachments of U.S. culture. The habits of our spread eagle capitalism – from heavily polluting manufacturing to fast food chains – have already arrived, but there remain strong vestiges of the native culture, a culture that was born in the Catholic faith. There are public demonstrations of the faith of a kind unknown in the mainland: Good Friday processions close down the heart of San Juan, a metropolitan city of 2 million people; saints’ festivals mark the calendar alongside civic holidays with the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist a kind of national day, celebrated with vigor a few weeks before July Fourth. There are a few for-profit nursing homes to care for the elderly, but most families take care of their own and the poor are tended to by the Church. There is a profound reverence for, and pride in, the natural beauty of the island, a concern for its environment but also a delight in making walks through the rain forests and on the beaches and in the mangrove cays. Nature is not something you merely preserve, it is something you love and enjoy. In public opinion surveys, Puerto Ricans always rank among the happiest, lest anxious, people on the world.
Congress should not support any proposal that will make it more difficult for the Puerto Rican people to maintain their culture, least of all one that short-circuits the repeatedly stated preferences of the Puerto Rican people, who have refused in all prior plebiscites, to endorse any significant changes. The current arrangement is not perfect, but it is better than all the alternatives, at least to the Puerto Rican people themselves. And, they are the ones who should decide how and by what mechanisms they wish to alter their political status.