Tools of Democracy to Achieve Political Equality of

U.S. Citizens in the Territory of Puerto Rico

by Franklin D. López


American University

Washington, D.C.

October 27, 2011

First of all, I wish to thank the two persons responsible for making this conversation possible: Dr. Robert Pastor and Dr. Eric Hersberg.

In November 2009, Dr. Robert Pastor, Maurice Ferré, Juan Manuel García Passalacqua and I participated in a forum sponsored by the Ana G. Méndez University System with the emblematic title: Future Alternatives: The Carter Presidency and Puerto Rico. During the luncheon that followed, I mentioned to Bob Pastor that we should initiate a dialogue between Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico on the status question. Bob spoke to Dr. Eric Hersberg and this is the first of what I hope will be a series of informative forums to let many in Washington, D.C. know that Puerto Rico is not in the Pacific, but in the Caribbean.

Since July 25,1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States has been treating Puerto Rico’s inhabitants with benign neglect. And yet, we are not the only ones. The same treatment has been given to African Americans and our soldiers when they come back from serving the Nation. In 113 years there have been three developments in the process of establishing “self-colonial government.” They are: the Foraker Act, allowing the formation of a civil government; the Jones Act of 1917, granting American citizenship; and Law 600, enacted by the Puerto Rico legislature, establishing the colonial constitution. The latter was used as a political ploy by the United States government to deter members of the United Nations from demanding a self-determination process for the territory of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, the most savvy political figure of his time and who had a pragmatic knowledge in how Washington works, came up with the idea of naming the territorial constitution Estado Libre Asociado, which literally means Free Associated State. We all know that the territory of Puerto Rico is neither Free,  nor Associated, nor a State: it is simply a possession of the United States at the mercy and will of  the United States Congress. It was the ideal name of something that never was. It was a concerted effort to appease the United Nations and it worked until 1977.

For the last 59 years the United States, the beacon of democracy and human rights in the world, has denied its American citizens in Puerto Rico the right of self-determination. The U.S. government has been using its Federal powers, law enforcement and tax agencies as a laboratory in colonial rule. By injecting more than 400 billion dollars into the Puerto Rican economy the U.S. government created a passive society in order to derail their rights to be equal as citizens of the Nation or to be free as an independent one. The colonial regime was also supported with a strong program of corporate welfare instead of a strong organic economic program providing financing and incentives to local small and medium size businesses as well as locally owned manufacturing plants.

But all of these aids were legislated under policies of segregation and in the same manner the white minority African National Party ruled South Africa. It was a policy similar to the “apartheid” treatment of African-American citizens living in the Union with a different political twist.  Puerto Rico was a colonial laboratory for the experimentation of all kinds of colonial policies!

Since its creation, the ELA status has not been able to lower unemployment below 10 per cent. Two thirds of the Island’s population live under the National poverty level. Puerto Rico has been living under a crime wave during the last three decades. We have one of the highest levels of mental health and suicides in the Nation. The U.S. Census revealed that the majority of Puerto Ricans live throughout the 50 states of the Union: 4.3 million versus 3.8 million on the Island. It also revealed that 16.2 per cent of existing housing units are empty. During the past 10 years more than 500,000 have left the Island and relocated mostly in Florida, New Jersey, Ohio & Pennsylvania.

I want to share with you the experiences I have had in order to demonstrate that the path for political equality is to use, with the highest intensity, the tools of participatory democracy.

In the summer of 1975 Juan Manuel García Passalacqua came to visit me at my office on a Saturday morning. Maurice Ferré had sent him the new rules of the delegate selection process of the Democratic Party as a result of the reform of the Winograd Commission. I carefully read it and decided to organize a citizens movement under a state chapter of Americans for Democratic Action.

As history has shown, it began with one idea and two minds committed to decolonize Puerto Rico. I began to organize, with Juan Ma’s help, the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico which I visited at least twice in 6 months. The political operation was named “Early Bird” and on the morning of February 22, 1976 the citizens’s movement made history! We won 9 delegates of 22 and, for the first time, people who believed in political equality were represented in the Democratic Party, who had supported until then the colonial regime on the Island. We took the Washington permanent political establishment by surprise. They sent “national correspondents” assets from Fortune, Time, The New York Times to interview me with only one question: “Did Jimmy Carter endorse or commit to support statehood for Puerto Rico?” My response was a simple: “No. Carter supports the self-determination of American citizens on the Island.”

From my Washington, D.C. travels as press secretary to the Mayor of San Juan in 1969, I began to learn that the road to equality was going to be bumpy, rough, and very hard. Washington was not going to entertain the decolonization of Puerto Rico unless a substantive and united front was organized in Puerto Rico as well as in the Nation.

I am and will always be a student. During the presidential primary season of 1976 I reaffirmed that the path for political equality is strongly associated with the ability to learn and use the political tools that our democratic system provides. Our National political system is not perfect, but it is the best in the World where people power and the force of voting could lead to change. Recent examples of this are the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. I tested this theory in the Pennsylvania Presidential Primary held on April 27,1976. With the help of local Puerto Rican leaders, I organized the 18th and 19th wards in Philadelphia. The day after the primary, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a front page map with the areas that Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson won in black. It covered almost all the city wards except the 18th and 19th wards. Carter defeated Senator Jackson in Pennsylvania.

Tim Kraft, a senior advisor, invited me to meet Carter for the first time at his hotel suite. It was like a reward for the literal fight we had to face against Mayor Rizzo’s political machine. After being introduced, I asked Carter if he knew any Spanish. He said yes, that he was forced to learn it in Mexico. “Dónde está el baño?”, he said with a heavy peanut farmer accent! Where is the bathroom?! I said to myself: “If he goes to the bathroom, he must be human just like me”! That day I buried the  fear imposed upon us about “the all mighty, semi-god status of Washington politicians!”

The antidote to injustice and inequality is the power of participatory and active democracy. During the August 1976 Democratic Convention, while the PDP delegation went shopping to Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, our delegation met with the Mexican-American and Cuban-American caucuses and we formed a formidable alliance to defeat the colonialist initiatives of the Popular Party. The more we got involved and studied how internal politics work, the more successful we became.

After the convention I was appointed by the Carter Campaign as National Field Coordinator for Hispanic Affairs. Armed with Tsun Su’s The Art of War and The Ethnic Factor by Mark Levy on how ethnic groups influenced battle ground states in presidential elections, I made Ohio the priority. I lived in Cleveland, Lorain, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron for 30 days. During that period we registered 27,000 new Hispanic voters to vote in the presidential elections of 1976. They voted 19:1 for Carter defeating Gerald Ford in the State of Ohio by a margin of 10,000 votes. We made the difference and Carter won the Presidency. The secret was in registering and voting!

As a direct result I was invited to the power table. From that day on I had access to Carter’s senior staff including  Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, Stuart Eisenstadt, Frank Moore, Tim Kraft, OMB Director James McIntyre and many others. Public policy is designed and drafted by the President’s staff and is the base of political and policy power.

During my participation as a transition staffer I had my first clashes with Washington’s permanent government beginning with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who tried hard to block the President elect’s message to the new statehood governor of Puerto Rico, Carlos Romero Barceló. He failed. I knew then that there was more to come!

I turned down a White House job dealing with the territories, and in 1977 returned to Puerto Rico to begin a series of initiatives to empower American citizens residing on the Island to have a stronger voice in Washington. I began by implementing a three phase plan: 1) Promote the election of the Democratic Party of Puerto Rico leadership in an Island wide internal election; 2) Drafting a Presidential Primary Law; and 3) to become the first statehooder to condemn the colonial regime before the United Nations and demand a self-determination process to end it.

The first primary for the election of a U.S. national political party was held on October 23, 1978 with the participation of more than 425,000 voters. I was elected State Democratic chair.

In early August I informed The White House that I was going to testify before the Committee of Decolonization at the United Nations to denounce the colonial segregationist regime in Puerto Rico. The news was not well received. I met with Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young, one of the pillars of the civil rights movement. He understood and supported with faint smiles and nodding his head in agreement every argument I made in favor of condemning the colonial regime. Then I was asked to meet with Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, Charles William Maynes, Jr. who was adamant about my participation, and, finally, it was Ambassador Donald McHenry, who used temerity and shouting as his tool to intimidate. When he began his screaming show I stood up and started walking out of his office, he yelled, “Where are you going?” “I am going to denounce my Nation of having a segregationist territory in Puerto Rico”, I said. I crossed the street and testified before the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations.

After returning to Puerto Rico I included in the draft of the presidential primary legislation a clause to make the Puerto Rico primary the first in the Nation. It made national news, and New Hampshire threatened to secede from the Union! Tim Kraft called me and said “What do you think you are doing!” I responded, “Fighting for the political equality of my people.” We discussed it and agreed to amend the bill in exchange for the following:

1)    Puerto Rico shall be treated as a state in the National delegate selection process.

2)    In the Roll Call of the states, Puerto Rico shall be called after Pennsylvania, a very strategic location in the nominating process.

3)    The White House was going to push for equality in assigning federal funds. Puerto Rico jumped from 1.9 billion to 3.9 billion in the following fiscal year.

4)    The addition of 4 federal judges for Puerto Rico in the Judicial Omnibus Bill.

The New Hampshire strategy proved that knowing the political battleground and effective use of the tools of democracy works. The Republican party followed by giving the same treatment to the Island Republicans. The Presidential Primary was enacted thanks to the solid statehood support of New Progressive Party founder don Luis A. Ferré and then San Juan mayor, Dr. Hernán Padilla. In the Presidential Primary of 1980 more than one million American citizens voted and Carter defeated Senator Ted Kennedy by a 25,000 vote margin. Presidential candidates came to Puerto Rico seeking their support. It was a major milestone in our democratic empowerment but it was seen by the Washington establishment as subversive!

From 1976-1980, in only four years, the statehood movement advanced dramatically in its path towards equality by submerging in the waters and currents of the Washington political sea.

Then, what is needed to achieve political equality? The path for political equality is hard, difficult, and challenging because of big corporate interests, conservative and segregationist groups, and politicians. In a meeting with General James Gavin, Chairman of Cambridge Research, he asked me what was needed to achieve political equality in Puerto Rico. I responded: “We don’t have oil, we don’t have nuclear weapons, but we have the ultimate weapon of eradicating injustice and inequality: VOTES, and we have them in battleground states. The only thing we need to do is get them registered and getting them out to vote on election day. Puerto Ricans love to vote. We have the highest participation in general elections of any state or territory in the Nation: 86% of eligible voters.” And if we make strong alliances with the Mexican-American and Cuban-American voters, we have a formidable force to be reckoned!” He agreed.

The struggle for political equality is a hard challenging road! It requires knowledge and skills of the battleground, commitment to the cause and how to get their support to win. The struggle must be fought in three distinct fields: The battleground states; Washington, D.C. with strong emphasis on the U.S. Congress; and in Puerto Rico. In 113 years of colonial statehood parties there is yet no plan or road map to achieve political equality.

Since 1967, Puerto Rico has celebrated three status plebiscites. In the 1967 Commonwealth won by 60.4%, statehood obtained 39%, and Independence .06 of 1%.  Even though the statehood cause was crushed, the mere fact that the United Statehooders defeated the Popular Party in 11 precincts for the first time in 16 years, it created the spark needed to organize the New Progressive Party and subsequently win the 1968 election. 

In the December 8, 1993 plebiscite, in its first year in power, the Rosselló administration held it without a solid war plan and with a political base still recovering from the hangover of winning the 1992 election, and without the motivation or commitment to win. The leadership and the base were busy securing government contracts and business. Commonwealth obtained 48.6% down 11.8% from the 1967 plebiscite. Statehood obtained 46.3%, a 7.3% increase, and Independence, 4.4%. Historically, colonial statehood parties have used the cause of equality with only one objective: control the administration of the colonial budget and reap its financial benefits.

In 1998, despite the fact that the New Progressive Party, almost unanimously, did not wish to hold a plebiscite after the Island was hit by a major hurricane, the Rosselló administration went ahead with the plebiscite which included a fourth formula added at the last minute by an obscure government legislator. The option “None of the above” won with 50.3%; statehood obtained 46.5%; Independence 2.5%; and Free Association .3 of 1%!  


Now, the Fortuño administration will hold a plebiscite on status in a two-phase event. The first one will be held in August 2012 asking the people if they support the present status or not; and the second phase, to choose one of the three internationally recognized decolonizing status formulas: statehood, independence, and free association. The statehood movement must adopt a four line statehood plan that fits the National political environment of the Presidential contest. This strategy must include, but not limit, a plan to support our allies in Congress and to defeat our opponents; a plan of voter registration in five battleground states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia; an Island-wide structure to mobilize the now disenchanted and dormant statehood base, and, fourth, a Super Pac with no less than 10 million dollars to fuel our Congressional war plan. If Congress does not move, then we bring our struggle before the International community and file a Human Rights Complaint before the International Court at The Hague. We must be bold and daring!

Unfortunately, no one has seen such a plan. Status politics in Puerto Rico is more improvisation than strategic planning. Status politics is secondary to winning the administration of the colony.

As history has shown, the U.S. government will push hard to maintain the status quo. Obama fell quickly into the D.C. Beltway ‘politics as usual’, and has adopted the same political posturing by echoing the same colonial policies of the past 11 presidents: “We will be ready to take the status question once you decide.” He forgets that the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and granted us American citizenship. Congress and the President, both, have a moral and legal obligation to hold a Federally mandated status plebiscite, paid by Congress, with a commitment to grant what the People of Puerto Rico decide.

How can the United States be a beacon of human rights, democracy and equality when it denies those same rights to 3.8 million of its citizens? Do we need to move Puerto Rico next to Israel in order to get the National attention to solve our status dilemma? How can the Nation’s government spend trillions in the so-called policy of “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan?

We must radicalize the struggle for political equality both in Puerto Rico and in our Nation. We must bring out our best political strategies and fight for them in the National political arena with courage and fearlessness, and the certainty that we are all fighting for a great cause: the right to be equal!

We must develop a national political alliance with those who preceded us in achieving equal rights and obligations–the African-American community; the Mexican-American, Cuban-American and or Latin-American ethnic groups. Members of Congress, the President and the Vice-president are not immune to the ballot box guillotine. If any of them oppose our right to political equality, then they must bear the burden to be called segregationist! We must organize our people and register them to vote in the principal battle ground states in order to be invited to the table of democracy. We must eliminate the unjust colonial system of the present regime.

Martin Luther King said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If the Obama administration does not get it, it will receive the ax at the ballot box in 2012! The cause of equality has a higher ranking than being a democrat or a republican.

Achieving political equality is not easy. Great causes are usually very hard to achieve, and it takes commitment and courage to succeed. We don’t need timid souls to win our cause. We must have leaders committed only to achieve equality like the leadership of the African-American civil rights movement.The ballot box and the tools of our democracy are our weapons to make Puerto Rico the 51 star in our National flag! The fight has just begun!