Speech delivered by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín at the University of Kansas City,
April 23, 1955

I should like to speak to you about the Commonwealth Status of Puerto Rico, a new form of free and voluntary association with the United States; its meaning to the Puerto Rican people; the significance it is attaining in the outside world, especially the Latin American world, as a sample of what the United States means to freedom, good-will and understanding among free men.

The Commonwealth idea is the political counterpart of our effort in the economic field, Operation Bootstrap.  The story of both is the story of a long, hard job.  The Commonwealth idea has developed excellently.  It is very good as it is.  It can be better as what couldnt, and it should be better, as what shouldnt.  We hope to make it better, and on that too, I shall dwell on this occasion.  Let us look first into the historical background, and then, let us see what Commonwealth means to those that, because they oppose it in Puerto Rico, interpret it meagerly, or who, because they interpret it meagerly, oppose it.  After that, I would like to tell you what it is in the view of those of us who have helped to create it.  And, finally, since we believe it is a dynamic political conception, how it may tend to grow.

For fifty years the people of Puerto Rico, while facing extremely difficult economic problems, has also been torn by a divided opinion as to what their ultimate political status should be.  Some wanted it to be independence; some, federated statehood.  It was inconceivable to everyone that it could, without grave moral deterioration, continue to be a political colony.

A colony it had been for many, far too many years before.  Up to 1897, for four hundred years, Puerto Rico knew only, except for three short constitutional periods, absolutist government, without respect for individual liberties and without a trace of democratic control of the government by the people.  The chief executive officer, appointed by the Spanish Crown, wielded great legislative, judicial and military powers.  There never was a legislative assembly as such.

A Charter of Autonomy, granted in 1897, shortly before the transfer of sovereignty to the United States, was a radical departure from previous Spanish practice.  It made provision for a Puerto Rican parliament with legislative power over most internal, and some external matters, and for a Council of Ministers responsible to the Lower House of that parliament which was wholly elected by the people.  It is interesting to note that this legislative assembly had power, subject to certain qualifications, to frame the tariff and fix the duties to be paid on merchandise both for import and export purposes.  Commercial treaties were to be made by Spain with the cooperation of special delegates authorized by Puerto Rican government.  Commercial treaties made without such participation could not extend to Puerto Rico except upon expression of their acceptance by Puerto Rico within a stated period.

The Charter could not be amended except by special law of the Cortes, and upon the petition of the Puerto Rican parliament.  It also continued the representation of Puerto Rico in the Spanish Cortes, with full power for our delegates to debate and vote.

Our experience with the Charter, however, was brief.  United States military government was established toward the end of 1898, and civil government went into effect under the terms of the Foraker Act in 1900.

Our first civil government after the transfer of sovereignty to the United States failed to provide anything that by the most undemanding standards could be called self-government.  It was a long step backward from the Spanish Charter of Autonomy.  The Foraker Act provided for an elective House and an Executive Council composed of the heads of the six executive departments, plus five other members, all appointed by the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the Senate.  The President also appointed the Governor, and the Justices of the Supreme Court.  All laws of the legislative assembly of Puerto Rico could be annulled by Congress.  Representation in Congress was provided through a Resident Commissioner, who could have a voice in the House debates, but no vote.

The Foraker Act was bad politics but good economics, a contrast that continued to characterize United States policy in Puerto Rico until very recently, a combination of economic, justice and generosity with political shortsightedness and confusion.  The Act established a free market between the United States and Puerto Rico and declared inapplicable federal internal revenue laws to the Island.  A customs union was also created and customs duties collected in Puerto Rico were covered into the Puerto Rican Treasury.  These provisions still define the basic economic relationships between Puerto Rico and the United States.  They have been responsible for a good part of the economic development of Puerto Rico.

Under the Jones Act of 1917, both houses of the legislature became elective.  Contrary to the Foraker Act, however, the legislative assembly could not override by a two-thirds vote a Governors veto, but the bill had to be transmitted to the President of the United States for final action.  As in the Foraker Act, Congress also reserved the power to annul the laws enacted by the legislature, although it is worth nothing that no law of Puerto Rico was ever annulled by Congress.

The Governor continued to be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Federal Senate, but he was now given the power to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Puerto Rican Senate, some of the department heads.  The Auditor, the Attorney General and The Commissioner of Education remained presidential appointees and so did the members of the Supreme Court.

The Jones Act also included a Bill of Rights and made the people of Puerto Rico citizens of the United States, which bond was later to create the basis for our present association.

In 1946, President Truman, without awaiting action by Congress, recognized a great principle within the limits of his executive power by appointing Jesús Piñero, who had been elected to Congress by the Puerto Rican voters in an island-wide election, as Governor of Puerto Rico.  Congress caught up with the President one year later when it passed the Elective Governor Act providing for an Elective Chief Executive who could appoint all officials formerly appointed by the President, except the Auditor and the Justices of the Supreme Court.

In spite of these gradual advances, the status of Puerto Rico still had a colonial imprint.  It was not the result of free agreement, but of unilateral decision, however fair or generous.  Our laws could still, theoretically, be annulled by Congress; even our own charter of government could itself be voided or changed without our consent.  Congress had plenary legislative power over Puerto Rico, not subject to many of the constitutional limitations which apply to legislation over the states.  The status of Puerto Rico was accordingly described as that of a possession or unincorporated territory of the United States.  As I stated before a committee of Congress in 1952, when the Constitution of the Commonwealth was up for ratification, Although colonial status has been in practice gradually disappearing, there has been lacking the basic moral element of freedom, which is consent on the basis of free agreement.  Kindness, or even justice, unilaterally bestowed, may denote an anti-coloniastic spirit, but it does not finally and decisively create an anti-colonial status.

Colonialism, as you in the states know well from your great history, is a festering sore in the human spirit.  The feeling that a man has a right to do to you without your consent what he has not the right to do to others unless with their authorization, is not conducive to the free play of constructive energies.

In Puerto Rico for years there was an anguish, a quite deadening anguish about this.  The feeling for the United States was always friendly, including that of the proponents of independence.  The political status was treated as a problem in dignity and morality existing side by side with, but not really connected to, the economic facts of life.  Year after year the debate went on.  Shall Puerto Rico become an independent republic?  Shall it be a State of the Union?  Or, as no other alternative was then imagined, shall it continue in the humiliation of being a colony?  Independence was impossible for the densely populated island sparingly provided with natural resources other than the potential in the character of its people, which was, however, smothered in a kind of pervading hopelessness.  For much the same reason Statehood was also impossible.  About Statehood, moreover, there was the grave doubt that the United States would concur with the wishes of Puerto Rico even if her people should express them in an indubitable manner.  Obviously, there was nothing morally wrong with either proposal.  So long as you could argue without reference to other data than that presented by political morality to the political conscience, the debate could go on forever without any loss excepting that of time.  But the moment you related political aspiration to the rest of life you ran against a wall.  Independence and statehood seeming hopeless, and colonialism, the only apparent alternative, being unbearable, we thus oscillated between what was impossible and what was intolerable.

The people groped for a break-through.  Beleaguered within the walls of the statehood-independence-colonialism triangle, pressed by the need of tackling other urgent problems, they first adopted the device of ignoring deliberately that there was a siege.  This was more or less where I came in.  I said, Lets pretend for a while that there is no problem of political status, but only economic and social matters to grapple with.  Since a whole generation has managed somehow to pretend that there is no economics but only politics, lets see what can be done by following the same procedure on a reserved premise.

It worked.  It turned out to be a profoundly realistic method as well as an artificial device.  It was the birth of Operation Bootstrap.  Energy was concentrated on what to do about land, industrial expansion, agricultural modernization, health conditions, insufficient educational opportunities, planning and budgeting techniques, civil service, up-to-date labor legislation.  Progress was made along all these lines.  It still has a long way to go; but out of hopelessness, hope has arisen and that is a great natural resource.

Things went well for a while in the beleaguered city, but it was a city beleaguered.  Voices began to be heard again, questioning what should it be? Statehood? Independence?

However, it was not like a return to the old days.  Energy had been released in democratic exploration as well as in economic drive.  An increased creativeness now began to work on the political dichotomy.  Puerto Rico could not go on being a political colony.  Could it be that there was no other way out but separation or federation?  Was democracy running dry in this field of the relationship of peoples and cultures within larger unions?  Had not Justice Frankfurter said: One of the great demands upon inventive statesmanship is to help evolve new kinds of relationships so as to combine the advantages of local self-government with those of a confederated union.  Luckily our Constitution has left this field of invention open

We moved into this field of invention.  We took the initiative and soon we had the good will of the Congress.  Above all, we had the unfaltering support of the President of the United States of whom it has been said in Puerto Rico that he is one of the greatest Puerto Ricans and in the world that he is one of the great Americans of whom all of us, his fellow citizens, can feel deeply proud.

What did we invent?  Let me recount what happened and then tell you first what those that in Puerto Rico thinks meagerly on the subject think we invented.  In March of 1950, our Resident Commissioner in Washington introduced, at the request of or people, a bill to provide for the organization of a government by the People of Puerto Rico under a Constitution of their own adoption.  This bill became law a few months later, on July 3, 1950.  The Act, known as Public Law 600, stated that the principle of government by consent was thereby fully recognized and that the Act was adopted in the nature of compact.  It accordingly was not to become effective unless accepted by the qualified voters of Puerto Rico in a referendum.  If accepted, the legislature was to call a constitutional convention to draft a Constitution.  The Constitution was to provide a republican form of government and to include a bill of rights.  Upon adoption of the Constitution, the President of the United States was to transmit it to Congress if he found that it conformed to the applicable provisions of Law 600 and of the Constitution of the United States.  Upon ratification by Congress, the Constitution would become effective according to its own terms; some specified sections of the old Organic Act, the Jones Act, referring mostly to internal matters, would then be deemed repealed, and others, dealing largely with the terms of relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, would remain and be known as the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act.  The Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act contains, among others, the provisions referring to the common citizenship, free trade, common coinage, a customs union, the Resident Commissioner, the federal judiciary, and the applicability of federal laws, with the exception of the internal revenue legislation.

Public Law 600, as you know, was overwhelmingly accepted by the people of Puerto Rico, the Constitution drafted and adopted, and the Commonwealth which it created formally established on July 25, 1952.

The opponents of this status in Puerto Rico consider that the process which I have just outlined has not changed Puerto Ricos character as a possession or territory of the United States.  They think that the Congress of the United States just wanted to make some changes that would look good in the appearance of Puerto Ricos status as a United States colony.  They say that the people of Puerto Rico were only empowered to prepare a rough draft of a Constitution which when corrected and approved by Congress would go into effect as the regulation determining the functioning of government branches and departments in Puerto Rico.  In other words, that which the people of Puerto Rico did was merely to draft and propose to Congress a new Organic Act-an obvious error, since our Resident Commissioner could have done that any day by dropping a bill into the hopper without any previous action by Congress or any referendum in Puerto Rico.  It is their view that this Constitution can at any time be unilaterally revoked or amended by Congress; that the Federal Relations Act can also be modified or annulled without the consent of the Puerto Rican people; that the laws of the Puerto Rican legislature can still be voided by Congress; and that Congress continues to exercise over Puerto Rico as full a power as over an unincorporated territory or possession.  To the holders of this view, it appears that the whole thing was only a change of nomenclature presumably to make child-like natives feel good, that the word, Compact was used for purposes of decoration, not too different from the sense in which it is employed to describe the container of rouge and face powder in a ladys handbag, and that the word fully in the phrase fully recognizing the principle of government by consent was really meant to be spelled not with a u but with a double o.

Let me say now what kind of status we are confident we have established, and after that I will ask your leave to explore how far it can further develop.

As we see it, Puerto Rico is a new kind of state, both in the sense of the U. S. Federal System and in the general sense of a people organized to govern themselves.  It is a system of government and it is a new manner of relationship to the United States, as it could be to any large union or confederation of political societies.  The relationship can no longer be said to be based on a military occupation or a treaty of peace ending a war between two other nations.  The idea of compact determines a basic change in the relationship.  It takes away from the very basis of the relationship-although perhaps not yet from some of its terms- the nature and onus of colonialism.  It can not be revoked or changed unilaterally.  Even if it were legally possible, it can not be conceived as morally possible.  A body with the record of the Congress of the United States could not do so.  After all, we know that the world of order and justice is not a nakedly legal world and that the ingredient of morals is a vital part of it-although I have not yet been made a doctor of morals, I venture to speak of this also.

The following was the view presented by the governments of the United States and of Puerto Rico at the United Nations, upon consideration by that body of the notification by the United States that it no longer considered necessary, in view of the change in Puerto Ricos status, to continue transmitting information about Puerto Rico as a non-self-government area under Article 7 (e) of the Charter:

Contrary to the position taken by the Independence Party, as well as that held by the Nationalist and Communist groups, the people of Puerto Rico hold that the Constitution and the laws of the Commonwealth can be amended, suspended or repealed only by their authority and that the compact between the United States and Puerto Rico can only be amended or repealed by mutual consent&This is also the understanding of the United States of America.  In uttering these words at the United Nations, our Resident Commissioner, Dr. Fernos-Insern, was acting as a delegate of the United States and thus, was an extraordinary symbol of the unity of purpose and understanding of the United States of America and the people of Puerto Rico.

And with respect to the Federal Relations Act it was also said on this occasion by another U. S. delegate, Mrs. Fraces O. Bolton: The relationships previously established&by a law of Congress, which only Congress can amend, have now become provisions of a compact of a bilateral nature whose terms may be changed only by common consent.  Court decisions have also sustained these views.

So the political status of Puerto Rico is one of free association with the American Union.  It is a new way of abolishing a colonial status under the constitutional system of the United States.  I do not say that the details of our relationship can not be improved, both from the point of view of the American Union and that of Puerto Rico; but the principle that such relationship, however it may change, is one of free agreement, makes the step we have taken the definite one in self-government.

There are, to be sure, other possible and necessary developments.  The establishment of the principle of compact and the adoption by the people of Puerto Rico of a Constitution of their own are one phase in the task of developing the Commonwealth idea.  Operation Commonwealth, an honorable joint task of the Congress of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico, has thus far meant two things.  It has meant a change in the basis of the relationship.  That relationship is no longer the product of unilateral decision but of common consent.  Puerto Rico is no longer a possession or territory of the United States.  It no longer belongs to the United States; it is associated to the United States as a free body politic on the basis of a common citizenship and a common loyalty to the ideals of democracy and freedom and it has meant a potential of future growth of the Commonwealth idea.

What further developments can advantageously take place in the growth of this new kind of state?  The second phase of his process would to my mind consist in a revision of the Federal Relations Act.  The formal principle of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico has been changed; we must now take a look at the terms of the relationship and see whether any changes are needed, beneficial to both the United States as a whole and Puerto Rico.

his marshals the question: By what standards should the good be judged in this connection?  It seems to me that no standard of judgment could be more fruitful than one that considers the spiritual satisfaction of the people of Puerto Rico and the greatest prestige of the policies of the United States.  I do not mention economic factors because the economic relationship, with few exceptions, is a mutually advantageous one.

What, by this standard, is open to improvement?  I would define it broadly in this way: All that restricts the authority of Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico without any appreciable advantage to the Union and without being essential to the principle of association through common citizenship, should be in some proper manner at some proper time-there need not be a great hurry about it- removed from the compact.  Proposals to instrument this principle can be, of course, various.  One thing that is basically lacking according to Carl Friedrich, Professor of Government at Harvard, who was an advisor to our Constitutional Convention, is the very important principle of participation by the people of Puerto Rico in federal legislation that applies to them, a fact that is bound in the long run to accumulate irritations.  Although the people of the Commonwealth have no vote in Congress, cast no ballot for the President and Vice-President of the United States, many federal laws apply in Puerto Rico and many future federal laws will apply.  The principle of no taxation without representation is recognized.  Other legislation, however, may also be of great significance.  Friedrich suggests the following ways of correcting what he regards as serious shortcoming: 1) That the Legislature of Puerto Rico, or a permanent committee duly constituted and created expressly for this purpose, have the right of declaring inapplicable to Puerto Rico a law of the United States Congress within thirty days of the signing of such law by the President, and that the Congress if it so wishes, may have this declaration reviewed by a committee composed of members of both Houses of the Congress of the United States and of the Legislature of Puerto Rico so that this committee may propose to the Congress suitable amendments to such laws.  2) That no law of the Congress of the United States take effect in Puerto Rico unless it be formally accepted by joint resolution of the Legislature of Puerto Rico.  3) Any of these alternatives may be adopted with and additional clause excluding from their operation certain kinds of laws-as for example those relating to coinage and international relations.

I personally do not believe that any of the alternatives that I have described provides the best way of recognizing the principle involved.  They are probably too cumbersome and complicated.  It can be seen, however, that Professor Friedrich is rightly envisaging full political dignity for the American citizens who are also citizens of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in a manner that is different from that which applies to States.  The significant values are: That suitable participation by the citizens in the approval of the laws that they must obey can not for a very prolonged period be considered covered by the generic consent given in a referendum.  That there are only two ways in which this participation can be instrumented-by Puerto Rico becoming a general classical state of the Union, electing senators and congressmen and voting for its chief executive officers, or by some method similar in principle, even if not in detail, to the one suggested by Friedrich.  In one case Puerto Rico will participate in the enactment of all legislation generally applicable to the citizens of all the states.  In the second case Puerto Rico would not influence legislation to be applied to the citizens of all the states, but its duly elected representatives would locally participate effectively in all legislation that their constituents must comply with.  Since the destiny of Puerto Rico is quite obviously not headed towards federated statehood, and since participation in the making of all applicable laws is a principle that can not be ignored, it seems that the seeking of an appropriate formula clearly belongs on the agenda of the future.  In this connection, Friedrich remarks: Such limitations constitute&a very marked violation of the principle of government by consent unless the idea of generic consent be extended to cover all past and future legislation of the Congress.  This kind of generic consent similar to Hitlers Law of Authorization of March 1933, is usually considered by students of constitutionalism as the precise opposite of government by consent.  Therefore, some kind of a consultative process must be evolved and it is to be hoped that the Federal Relations Act will be clarified regarding this.  Professors Friedrichs language is, I believe, too strong, since the genuine democratic quality and spirit of the Puerto Rican referendum should be borne clearly in mind.  His principle, however, is entirely valid.

I want to make clear that the people of Puerto Rico are not protesting against the compact that they approved at the polls four years ago.  All of us often discern the shortcomings of institutions that we approve of.  Nor do we think it necessary to propose at this time corrections that may be suitable and satisfactory both to the Congress and Puerto Rico.  The urgency is only in a clear recognition of the principle involved.  Nothing can be gained by delaying recognition of what eventually will require action.

Perhaps a more promising manner of seeking for the actual shape of the future arrangements would be by not thinking in terms of applicable or inapplicable federal legislation, but in terms of federal functions essential to the principle of association and to the facts of common citizenship, such as defense, including against subversives, currency, wage standards, political international relations.  As regards non-political international relations the Commonwealth should probably acquire the right of accession or non-accession to economic treaties affecting the interests of its citizens as it had under the Spanish Charter of Autonomy of 1897.  The manner of operation of each federal function probably could be established with greater pertinence and realism in an ad-hoc drafting of the Federal Relations Act.  This procedure I am confident would prove more satisfactory than an agreement that certain kinds of federal laws the subject matter of which justifies their application should receive the a priori approval of their unformulated language.

This is the Puerto Rican story.  It deserves to be more widely known, for it has meaning to other than our own people.  Colonialism has been an experience shared by too many; its grip of anguish still lacerates the spirit of great segments of mankind.  The main bond in common among the peoples of Asia and Africa today is, in effect, the fact that at some time or other they have all, to some extent, been colonies of the West.  The relevance of the Puerto Rican story does not, however, lie in its providing a pattern for multiple use.  Different times and different places call for different solutions; complete independence has been the right answer in some cases; federation, confederation, or even total integration in others.  We do not envisage the system which the Congress of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico have worked out and are working out, as being necessarily valid in other places.  The real import of our story lies rather in its showing of how the human spirit can still find a way even in dead-ends.  It is a story of courage and of human creativeness in which a whole people have dynamically participated, and as such it can be shared by others also groping in their beleaguered cities for a break-through.

In the unfolding of the Puerto Rican story, all peoples can see, as in a bright, small mirror, how the United States deeply feels about colonialism.  The development of the Commonwealth idea is providing, in fact, a dramatic medium for the natural expression of United States feelings on this key issue in present world affairs, in a manner different than by just spawning new political nationalities in a world already overcrowded with absolute sovereignties economically most un-absolute.  The realities of necessary and cherished alliances with some of our colonial-minded friends of the Western World often find the spirit of the United States confused with that of nations which are viewed with animosity and distrust by hundreds of millions over vast expenses of the earth because of their historical attitude toward under-developed peoples.  But here, in its relationship to Puerto Rico and the dynamic Commonwealth idea, America has no entangling alliance saving its own great tradition, saving with its own great sense of human dignity and brotherhood.  And so its anti-colonial spirit works and creates untrammeled.

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