• The Star Staff

PR to go forward with status plebiscite despite DOJ’s refusal to release funds

By John McPhaul


Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen on Thursday informing them that Puerto Rico plans to move forward with the status plebiscite in elections Nov. 3 despite the refusal of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to approve an allocation of $2.5 million for that purpose.

“In the letter, the Governor addresses the misconceptions, oversights, and misguided reasoning of DOJ regarding the island’s upcoming plebiscite,” said a press release from the governor’s office. “The communication further states that even though the appropriated federal funding is not required by law, the $2.5 million obligation could help procedurally with this plebiscite after Puerto Rico’s State Elections Commission failed to complete its functions efficiently in the 2020 primaries.”

This year’s plebiscite comes after the 2017 objection by DOJ to Puerto Rico’s initially proposed ballot for that year’s plebiscite that included the “statehood” and “free association/ independence status” options, arguing that Puerto Rico needed to add the “current territorial status” option.

Island officials complied with this request and included the “colonial” territorial status option on the ballot; however, DOJ still failed to obligate funds for the 2017 plebiscite.

Additionally, the letter to the DOJ states that “the people of Puerto Rico and not the federal government should determine the preference among options,” pointing out that in its refusal to obligate funds for the planned 2020 plebiscite the DOJ is ignoring that Puerto Rico’s elected officials selected the language for it.

“This premise violates the directives of [U.S. House Report] 116-101 that states clearly ‘that the current territorial/Commonwealth status should be excluded from any future plebiscite, since it fails to address key inequities,’” the press release notes.

In the DOJ’s July 29 letter, the agency included outdated language from previous congressional legislation that disregards current directives that Puerto Rico’s plebiscite language remained unchanged, the press release said.

“We are disappointed with DOJ’s determination to not obligate the $2.5 million allocated by Congress for the people of our island to freely and democratically exercise their right to vote and finally resolve Puerto Rico’s colonial-territorial status,” Vázquez said in the press release. “I am concerned with DOJ’s explanation and the tone of the communication that seem to be skew in favor of the current territorial status, despite a clear mandate from Congress to disregard this option in future plebiscites and the policy of the U.S. to remain neutral in this topic.”

The governor added that “DOJ’s decision will not deter our will and determination to end this unfair political status that further perpetuates inequalities and the unjust treatment of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.”

“Today, I say to the DOJ that Puerto Rico will move forward with the November 3 plebiscite,” she said. “While we do not require the federal funds or DOJ’s blessing to proceed with the free will of the people of Puerto Rico, I urge you to continue working with our Government to obligate the $2.5 million that will guarantee the fair and transparent election process that all Puerto Ricans deserve.”

Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) Executive Director Jennifer M. Storipan added that the “language of the letter from DOJ is an example of the misconceptions some in the U.S. mainland have about Puerto Rico’s political status.”

“During my tenure as Executive Director of PRFAA, I have learned a great deal about the intricacies of the island and how, in some cases, complex situations are not always given the necessary consideration by the federal government,” Storipan said in the press release. “In its letter, DOJ failed to acknowledge that regardless of whether a U.S. territory is incorporated or unincorporated, and irrespective of a plebiscite being binding, non-binding, or even held at all, the only requirement for a U.S. territory to become a state is for Congress to vote.”

Vázquez noted that “[i]n our nation, we hold democracy as a sacred right.”

“That right should not be denied to the people of Puerto Rico,” the governor said. “We must safeguard the integrity of the elections and in order to do so, we urge the proper and swift disbursement of the $2.5 million in funds appropriated by Congress for the 2020 general election plebiscite.”