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Three Choices for Puerto Rico

Walter Russell Mead

To longtime nationalists, moves by the United States over the island’s $72 billion debt are yet more proof that colonialism is alive and well. The New York Times:

In June, the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro J. García Padilla, traveled to New York City and told a special committee of the United Nations that despite all appearances, Puerto Rico was still a colony of the United States. He sought the United Nations’ help in achieving self-determination for the island, which is a commonwealth of the United States.

“Puerto Rico is hungry and thirsty for justice,” Mr. García Padilla said.

The special committee has called on Washington to “allow the Puerto Rican people fully to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.”

To understand why Mr. García Padilla’s remarks were so unusual, it helps to know that his Popular Democratic Party claims to have already freed Puerto Rico from the colonial yoke. The island’s independence is a signature issue: The party takes credit for negotiating a unique status for Puerto Rico — that of an “associated free state” — which is said to provide the best of both worlds, statehood and independence, without forcing Puerto Rico to choose.

The party says it achieved that in 1954, and that Puerto Rico has been an “associated free state” since.

The Puerto Rico debt crisis is proof positive that the status quo on the island, a kind of halfway house between statehood and independence, isn’t working. Logically there are three alternatives: reform the commonwealth status quo so that it provides an effective frame for responsible self-governance, or go to one of the other alternatives: statehood or independence.

Ultimately, if the U.S. congress and the elected government and the people of Puerto Rico can’t come up with a common vision either for statehood or reformed commonwealth status, then independence is the best, and indeed only, option. It would be in the U.S. interest for an independent Puerto Rico to be stable and prosperous, so the U.S. position in any independence negotiations should be generous and helpful. On the other hand, the U.S. should be clear that statehood is irrevocable: since 1865 it has been clear that secession is not an option. Once in, you stay.

However, before reaching that point, all of the options should be fully explored; ultimately in deciding their future, the people of Puerto Rico should choose among three coherent visions for their future. The next U.S. President needs to work with Congress and Puerto Rico to create the conditions for a frank, open, and well-informed discussion over the future of Puerto Rico in which all the options are on the table.

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