August 18, 2021

Political Report #1458 The Business of Puerto Rico’s Statehood Party by Pedro Cabán

LAP Blog Exclusive

"To reach the unreachable star. This is my quest, To follow that star No matter how hopeless, No matter how far." 

Don Quixote’s elusive quest is a fitting metaphor for Puerto Rico’s statehood movement. For over 120 years Puerto Rican annexationists have campaigned to convert the archipelago into a state of the Union. In 1899, one year after Spain was forced to cede Puerto Rico to the United States, the island’s Republican Party and the Federal Party called for the archipelago’s “definitive and sincere annexation.” Consistent with their understanding of U.S. territorial policy, the annexationists expected that Puerto Rico would automatically become an incorporated organized territory, and eventually be granted statehood. This clearly did not happen. The Supreme Court ruled in 1901 (Bidwell v Downes) that since Puerto Rico was “inhabited by alien races differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought” it would be barred from admission into the Union until that time when “our own theories may be carried out and the blessings of free government under the Constitution extended to them.”  Puerto Rico long ago acquired these attributes, which are central to the creed of American exceptionalism, but it still languishes as the American empire’s last remaining colony. 

Since 1967, when the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) first gained control of the insular government, it has leveraged public resources and political contributions in an ongoing campaign to recruit U.S. legislators and the American public to its cause. The PNP has held five plebiscites since 1993.  It appointed two shadow congressional delegations modelled on the Tennessee Plan to lobby Congress for statehood. The PNP Resident Commissioner and statehood supporters in Congress regularly introduce legislation calling for Puerto Rico’s admission to the Union. In March 2021 Jennifer González, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, and Florida Democrat Darren Soto introduced the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act, H.R. 1522.  In the same month Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortes and Nydia Velasquez of New York presented the  Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021, H.R. 2070, which includes  statehood as a territorial option Between 1898 and 2021 Congress introduced over 140 territorial status bills.  Over the years a multitude of congressional commissions has descended on the archipelago to assess public sentiment for status change. Congress has held dozens of hearings on Puerto Rico’s territorial status. Most recently, the House Committee on Natural Resources held hearings on April 14, 2021, and convened a second set of hearings on June 16, 2021, on status related legislation that includes statehood as possible decolonizing.  It is surprising this was the first time Congress held hearings on a statehood admission bill.  The PNP employs high power lobbying agencies and law firms to influence Congressional committees of jurisdiction over Puerto Rico. Former PNP officials established the Puerto Rico Statehood Council and the Puerto Rico Equality Forum to lobby Congress.  Former PNP officials set up PR51st. which is described as a public advocacy and educational organization 

Despite all this activity, today the PNP is no closer to adding another star to the American flag than its annexationist progenitors were in 1898.  Yet, the PNP resolutely ignores the political headwinds that have stymied the statehood movement, and marches on. Recently the PNP has intensified its campaign to convince Congress to admit Puerto Rico into the Union.  This urgency is driven by dramatic political developments that have unnerved the PNP leadership. A popular uprising in 2019 forced PNP governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign. Scandals involving PNP officials and mishandling of crises caused by Hurricane María in 2017 and the earthquakes in 2019 undermined the party’s credibility. The PNP lost control of the legislature in 2020. The PNP’s base is eroding, as new progressive political parties are gaining more support.  

Why does the PNP persist in its statehood campaign when faced with long-standing, seemingly insurmountable Congressional opposition? The short answer is that the PNP has no choice but to sustain the illusion that statehood is a historical inevitability. The PNP has mounted a permanent campaign to gain and hold onto political power by convincing Puerto Ricans that statehood is inevitable. The political party that controls the governorship commands the abundant resources of the colonial state and manages billions of dollars of federal transfer payments and emergency funding. 

The PNP has no program for governing. Its growth strategy “aims to ensure Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal transformation”  by enhancing profitability for U.S. corporations.  It has no discernable ideology that is intrinsic to Puerto Rico’ reality. However, much of its leadership is politically conservative along the lines of the Trump wing of the Republican party, and it is also fiercely and violently anti-independence.  The PNP campaigns on the theory that it is only a matter of time before Congress gives in to its demand for statehood. The PNP reasons that Congress cannot permanently evade the moral obligation to grant Puerto Rico the political equality and civil rights which can only be conferred by admission into the Union. 

The PNP held plebiscites in 2012, 2017, and 2020. All were mired in controversy and marked by a steady drop in voter turnout. Efraín Vásquez-Vera, a university professor and former assistant secretary of state under the opposition Popular Democrático Party, ridiculed these plebiscites as having been “designed and pushed forward without consensus by the almost fanatical pro-statehood political party while in power, with the evident propose … of maintaining alive the chimera of statehood.” This partisan commentator is not alone in rebuking the credibility of the PNP orchestrated plebiscites. The Department of Justice also “disputed the validity of the plebiscites” in a recent report on H.R.1552.  

The Department of Justice has previously stated that the ballot propositions in the 2012 and 2017 plebiscites contained inaccuracies and were potentially misleading and that the premise of the 2020 plebiscite—that the people of Puerto Rico had conclusively rejected the current territorial status in 2012 and 2017—was one with which the Department disagreed.

The 2012 plebiscite had two important takeaways. First, 54 percent of Puerto Rico’s 1.9 million voters disapproved of the Commonwealth status. Second, the PNP did not get the mandate for statehood it wanted. The state electoral commission certified that 61percent of the 1,364,000 cast were for statehood. But the results excluded 498,604 (24percent) blank ballots that were cast. The opposition political parties argued that by not counting the blank ballots, which they claimed were protest votes, the plebiscite results failed to accurately measure the level of statehood support. It is ironic that while voters rejected the Commonwealth, they also voted Luis Fortuño and the PNP out of office. The PPD governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed a concurrent resolution in May 2013 declaring that the 2012 plebiscite results were “inconclusive.” According to Garcia Padilla, the statehood dropped to 44.4 percent  if the “protest” blank ballots were counted.

The PNP held another non-binding plebiscite in 2017 and ignored the U.S. Justice Department’s objection that the ballot had “ambiguous and potentially misleading statements” and could hinder “efforts to ascertain the will of the people from the plebiscite results.”  Only 23 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots, but that did not deter the PNP from proclaiming that statehood had achieved an overwhelming mandate with 97 percent of the vote. A buoyant Governor Ricardo Rossello, announced that “the United States of America will have to obey the will of our people.” But a cynical Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez mocked Rosselló, “Not even Putin gets 97 percent of the vote. We’re going to take that seriously?”  Former PPD Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá was sure that “Washington will laugh in their faces,”  since wining 97percent of the vote is the “result you get in a  one party regime. 

After the 2017 plebiscite, Governor Ricardo Rosselló installed the Puerto Rico Equality Commission (PREC) and dispatched it to Washington D.C to “advocate for both the termination of Puerto Rico’s territorial status and the island’s admission as a state of the Union.”  Rosselló appointed two “senators” and five representatives to the PREC to the government funded partisan lobbying organization. Among those appointed were ex-governors: Luis Fortuño, Pedro Rossello, the governor’s father,  and Carlos Romero Barcelo.” On January 10, Resident Commissioner Jennifer González called on Congress to recognize and seat the commission’s members. Congress ignored the petition.  At the end of the Commission’s lackluster tenure its chair, Romero Barcelo, reported that the PREC “worked steadfastly to cultivate relationships and support among members of Congress for Puerto Rico’s decolonization process” and “to influence national opinion in favor of statehood.”  According to PR51st, a statehood advocacy organization, Rosselló established the PREC because he wanted to “reassure those who worried that Puerto Rico would be a blue state.” Statehooders falsely depict Puerto Rico as politically polarized along the toxic ideological faultlines of U.S. national politics.  But in Puerto Rico, the political divide centers on territorial status and government accountability. Puerto Ricans uniformly agree that good governance is vitally necessary. With no discernable achievements, the PREC appears to have quietly dissolved in 2020 after Governor Rosselló was ousted from power.  

The PNP tried one more time in 2020 to get a mandate for statehood, and in the process shore up its flagging base. It partially succeeded since statehood obtained 52.5 percent of the vote in the non-binding 2020 plebiscite. But many considered the victory illusory since only 52 percent of the electorate voted, the lowest turnout in at least seven decades. The plebiscite results confirmed Congress’ suspicion that the PNP overstates the extent of statehood support. In 2014 Senator Roger Wicker spoke against the Puerto Rico Status Resolution bill, which “set forth a process for Puerto Rico to be admitted as a State of the Union.” According to Wicker, “The percentage of statehood supporters has not changed significantly over the last 20 years and certainly does not serve as an impetus for Congress to entertain yet another admissions process now.” Recently Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer echoed the same concerns when he announced that he would not support the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act of 2021 because the referendums “did not reflect the strong consensus required to advance” the statehood act. 

In the 2020 elections Pedro Pierluisi, the PNP gubernatorial candidate, was declared the winner with barely 33 percent of votes. But the PNP suffered a stunning legislative defeat losing its majorities in the Senate and the House. Its share of Senate seats plummeted from 21 to 9 , and from 32 to 20 in the House of Representatives.  Days before the new legislature was seated on January 1, 2021, the PNP enacted a law to authorize elections for a new Congressional Delegation. On May 16, 2021, about 4 percent of the registered voters elected a six-member delegation (two “senators” and four “representatives”) comprised of PNP loyalists and party members. The delegation is supposed to lobby Congress to accept the 2020 plebiscite results, and to vote for statehood. Among those elected were the discredited former governor Rosselló, and controversial former Ponce mayor María “Mayita” Meléndez who lost the 2020 elections to her PPD rival by 35 points. Governor Pierluisi allocated $1.25 million to cover the Delegation’s salaries and expenses. The delegate elections cost an additional $1.1 million.  The decision to hold the delegate elections during a fiscal crisis and pandemic was widely criticized. The Puerto Rican Independence Party chastised Pierluisi.  “The decision to use public funds to impose a mechanism of private lobbyists to promote the status vision of only one party is an insult to the country.”

While Congress has never shown much interest in Puerto Rican statehood, it also has never considered relinquishing Puerto Rico, once a prized Caribbean possession of strategic and economic value. Puerto Rico occupies a liminal space in the American empire since it belongs to but is not part of the United States. As an unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico straddles two distinct forms of sovereignty: statehood and independence. In 2013, Senator Ron Wyden stated, “Puerto Rico must exercise full self-government as a sovereign Nation or achieve equality among the states of the Union.”  The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the “third path” between statehood and independence, effectively ended when PROMESA was passed and when Supreme Court rulings affirmed that Puerto Rico is territory with no sovereign rights. 

The PNP will continue its quest as long as Congress chooses not to bar Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union, something it is loath to do since it would evoke the racist 1901 Downes v Bidwell ruling. Congress prefers to equivocate about the prospects for statehood and has never set down the conditions under which this would happen. The 2021 Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act is Congress’ latest variant on how to manage the quixotic statehood issue. The bill authorizes the Puerto Rican legislature to convene a status convention where elected delegates will decide on alternative self-determination options to include in a referendum. H.R. 2070 does not set a time limit for the convention to conclude its work, and the process may take years. But before holding the referendum, “ a congressional bilateral negotiation commission” will oversee the process and generate reports for the Senate and House committees of jurisdiction. 

Voters will cast ballots in rank order for statehood, independence, and free association. The bill does not describe how the rankings will be counted. Different counting methods will yield different outcomes. The bill requires Congress to “approve a joint resolution to ratify the self-determination option” selected by the voters. But Congress can delay approval of the joint resolution. José Fuentes Agostini, former Attorney General of Puerto Rico, testified in the April 2021 hearings that H.R. 2070 “proposes a new process with no accountability and no end date. H.R. 2070 provides no explicit guidance on constitutional parameters.” Columbia law professor Ponsa Kraus, claims, albeit without evidence, that the bill is an attempt “to delay, and therefore defeat, an offer of statehood, while resuscitating some version of the discredited commonwealth option.” Nonetheless, it is conceivable that statehood may emerge as the preferred option. And this possibility, remote as it may be, sustains the PNP listless statehood “movement.” 

While the PNP will continue its quest to convince Congress that statehood is a historical inevitability, it wants to hedge its bets. The PNP has built a nexus of corporate lobbyists, issue specific advocacy organizations and has used a Commonwealth executive agency to promote statehood.  The Intercept, El Nuevo Día and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo have reported on the network of right wing lobbying firms hired by PNP affiliated advocacy groups to foster private capital accumulation in Puerto Rico. The firms push for fiscal policies and legislation, including PROMESA, to protect U.S. bond holders, and devise schemes to enhance the profitability of corporations setting up operations in Puerto Rico. Some of these firms have been hired to manage the privatization of government-owned resources and facilities, or as journalist Ed Morales describes, as the “move to gut public goods for private profit.”


Former prominent PNP officials run statehood advocacy organizations.  Kenneth D. McClintock, who served as President of the PNP-controlled Senate (2005-2008), was the president of the Puerto Rico Equality Forum (PREF). The PREF “carries out research and educational activities related to equality for Puerto Rico, including efforts paid by registered lobbyist at the federal level.” McClintock, who is a paid consultant for the PREF, closed the organization after the Congressional Delegation was elected in May 2021.  He was hired by Politank in 2021 as a senior public advisor.  Politank, describes itself “as a boutique bipartisan government affairs and consulting firm.” In 2018 Politank was hired by hedge funds to work on “the extraction of debt” from Puerto Rico. Francisco Domenech, Resident Commissioner González’s former campaign manager, is the managing director of Politank.

The Puerto Rico Statehood Council (PRSC) is a Washington, D.C. based “civil liberties advocacy” organization that educates the general public and “federal policy makers” about the constitutional rights of “U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico,” and advocates for their constitutional rights.   In 2018 the PRSC raised $817,000 in revenues, an increase from the previous year of 35.3 percent. The increased revenue coincided with the introduction of H.R. 6246: The Puerto Rican Admission Act of 2018. In the following legislative session, the PREF and the PRSC lobbied for H.R. 4901, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act. The PREF paid Akin Gump Straus Hauer & Feld  $320, 000 in 2019 to lobby for HR4901, while the PRSC paid Akin Gump and Navigators Global $2,050,00 to lobby for the same measure. Akin Gump is a leading international law firm with extensive policy and legal work on Puerto Rico US relations. In addition to the PREF and PRSC lobbying expenditures, the Commonwealth government spent almost $5 million between 2018 and 2020 to lobby the federal government for increased appropriations, disaster relief, and support for Medicare/Medicaid issues. The government has contracts worth millions with U.S. owned consulting firms. In April 2021, Pierluisi awarded ICF, a global consulting and digital services firm a $46 million contract to “support long-term disaster recovery.”

The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) is an executive agency of the Commonwealth that is charged “with representing and advancing the interests of Puerto Rico.  PRFAA officials are routinely hired as senior managers for statehood advocacy organizations.  José Fuentes Agostini, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, hired George Laws Garcia, the former interim executive director of the PRFAA as the Council’s Executive Director. Fuentes Agostini was the Secretary of Justice under PNP governor Pedro Rosselló. He was also a member of Donald Trump’s  campaign, and serves on Hispanic Advisory Committee of the Republican Party. Martín E. Rivera, was director of Director for Government Affairs at PRFAA until February 2021, when he was appointed executive director of The National Puerto Rican Equality Coalition. Another PNP-fronted public advocacy organization was created in April 2021.  Anthony Carrillo Filomeno, director of the Florida office of the PRFAA, endorsed the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act of 2021 as “the right step to ensure the political equality of the 3.2 million American citizens on the island.”  The PNP also recruits leadership from the Republican far right.  In 2017 Governor Rosselló appointed Carlos R. Mercader as executive Director of PRFAA. Before this appointment Mercader was Executive Director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.”

The PNP funds civic organizations to educate the American public about Puerto Rico. The PRSC established PR51st, a public advocacy organization, “to build a national movement in support of equal rights for U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico through statehood.” PR51st. is the largest statehood advocacy organization, and relies primarily on social media to promote statehood. Another group, The Puerto Rico Star Project, describes itself as a “nonprofit organization that creates awareness about Puerto Rico’s colonial status and educates the public about statehood.” After the November 2020 elections, the PR51st spearheaded a coalition of non-profit organizations that wrote to President-elect Biden and the incoming Democratic congressional leadership urging them to accept the results of the 2020 Puerto Rican plebiscite.  González, who was one of the chairs for Latinos for Trump and is President of the Puerto Rican Republican Party, is a key figure in the coalition.  

González is in the middle of the web of lobbying firms and corporations with interests in Puerto Rico. In 2019/2020 U.S. firms contributed $1.44 million to González’s reelection campaign. Among her contributors was O’Neill & Borges which has the largest bankruptcy restructuring and insolvency practice in Puerto Rico. The firm’s legal counsel contracts with the FOMB. Another important contributor was King and Spalding a top ranked international law firm. In 2019 the firm was hired to advise the Puerto Rico Power Authority on a $1.5 billion fuel supply and conversion of two liquified natural gas plants. Politank, where McClintock is a principal, was a contributor to González’s first campaign for resident commissioner. Between 2016 and 2018 McClintock donated $1.25 million to her PAC. Fuentes Agostini, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council donated $1million to the resident commissioner’s campaign. In 2020 González contracted Key Integrated Solutions for over $816, 000 for unspecified purpose. This well-connected Puerto Rican marketing and advertising firm has been involved in controversial government contracts. González also contributed $101,000 to Winred. Winred is “the #1 fundraising technology used by conservatives,” and was endorsed by President Trump. In the 2019/2020 campaign cycle WinRed PAC, which is described as a small donor fundraiser,  raised a staggering $2.24 billion dollars.

PNP officials have taken jobs in firms with business interests in Puerto Rico after leaving government. Most prominently among them is former PNP governor Luis Fortuño, (2009-2013) who is a partner in the influential white-shoe firm Stepstoe and Johnson. He is the firm’s legal and financial advisor on Puerto Rican affairs. One of Stepstoe’s clients is Assured Guaranty, which represents the interests of Puerto Rican municipal bond holders. Fortuño was the darling of the Tea Party and  self-proclaimed conservative Republican spoke at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference, where he celebrated the punitive austerity program he imposed while governor.   Governor Pedro Pierluisi took a position as a capital member in O’Neill & Borges after he stepped down in 2016 as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner. 

The Partido Nuevo Progresista knows that Congress will neither act on the statehood nor categorically reject it. So, the PNP believes it’s in a win-win situation. As long as Congress fails to act, the PNP will continue to campaign for statehood.  If Congress grants Puerto Rico statehood, the PNP believes its political future is assured.  The PNP leadership assumes their party is ideally positioned to govern the new state of Puerto Rico since it would have delivered on its promise of statehood. But this outcome is uncertain. Popular support for the PNP has steadily declined. The PNP has a tarnished reputation because of its long-standing record of corruption, mismanagement of the post-hurricane María crisis, the punitive austerity measures it has imposed and for its destructive environmental policies. The deteriorating support explains the  urgency with which the PNP is pushing for statehood.

Governor Pierluisi has enacted policies that only serve to further erode his party’s popular support.  Pierluisi dismissed the legislature’s opposition and spent millions on what many consider the absurd Congressional Delegation. Pierluisi went along the Junta’s order to privatize the management of electrical transmission and distribution functions of the state utility corporation (PREPA).  He continues to ignore widespread demonstrations led by the Unión de Trabajores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego (UTIER) against the contract with Luma Energy LLC. Pierluisi disregarded a 43-0 House vote against the deal. Pierluisi agreed with the Junta’s order to siphon $750 million from Puerto Rico’s stressed budget “to create a reserve fund” for Luma, a corporation that “was created especially for Puerto Rico.”  Pierluisi provoked further popular displeasure for reneging on a pledge to prioritize the reduction of child poverty. He arbitrarily reduced the $5.5 million listed as “budgetary priority” to $1.2 million, and blamed the Junta for slashing support for the 57 percent of children who live below poverty. In July 2021 hundreds of Puerto Ricans occupied a stretch of  public beach that is a protected turtle sanctuary when the owners of an exclusive condominium complex started construction on a luxury pool. The well-connected owners obtained a waiver to build on the sanctuary, and hundreds of heavily armed police were dispatched to guard the constructed site.  The protests, marches and demonstrations against Pierluisi are happening throughout the archipelago. The governor has flagrantly disregarded the people’s rightful indignation, and shrugs off the notion that he may suffer the same fate as the despised Rosselló.

The PNP has discovered that while the road to statehood is interminable, it is paved with gold. While the PNP likely will fail to convince Congress to make Puerto Rico a state, fortunes are expended in trying to do so. Corporations and individuals are enrichened, careers are built, the false dream of Puerto Rican statehood is sustained, and voters will continue to support the PNP.  If the PNP controls the governorship and has enough votes in the legislature to prevent overriding a governor’s veto, it will continue to deploy the resources of the colonial state to foster the statehood fantasy.   

The PNP has always claimed that attaining civil rights Puerto Ricans is the heart of its mission. Four decades ago, Romero Barcelo wrote “certainly the most fundamental argument on behalf of statehood concerns the rights of citizenship.” Indeed, U.S. citizens living in the colony cannot vote for the President of the United States, and  can’t elect representatives and senators to represent them in Washington. Nonetheless, Puerto Ricans enjoy all the civil rights accorded to the citizens of a democracy. These rights are enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Constitution. But the exercise of civil rights cannot protect the citizenry from the assault against their fundamental human rights that is the consequence of a brutal neoliberal agenda imposed by the colonial state. The PNP has a history of imposing austerity policies and abetting the despoliation of the environment to protect and enhance foreign private capital accumulation. The resulting economic inequality and insecurity, and widening impoverishment of the population, constitute violations of human rights at its most fundamental level; access to food, education, health, work, and liberty.  Section 20 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth recognizes the existence of these rights and the responsibility of the state to safeguard them. 

But these rights are elusive to the growing numbers of Puerto Ricans who are living on the edge of precarity. Imposing statehood on Puerto Rico will not protect its people from a colonial state committed to the advance of capital at their expense. The irony in all this is that the PNP is enacting policies that are alienating the very population it needs to retain control of the colonial state, which is indispensable for the party to sustain the illusion that statehood is attainable.  

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