What the Aftermath of D.C.’s Weed Law Means for Puerto Rico

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Whenever the colonial status of Puerto Rico is mentioned, some people hastily point out that the island has its own government, with its own constitution, and free and open elections. Remind them of the fact that, as a U.S. colony, Puerto Rico is under the supreme authority of the U.S. Congress, a body to which the people of Puerto Rico are barred from electing representation, and the same defenders still refuse to admit that the United States could be anything less than democratic.

It isn’t their fault, really. Most people never fully realize the extent to which Puerto Rico is treated as a mere plaything of U.S. business interests, because the U.S. government has avoided overt displays of domination. Capitol Hill’s furtive maneuvers notwithstanding, U.S. subjection of Puerto Rico is very real.

Now that the Republican Party regained a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time since January 2007, those who believe Puerto Rico’s disenfranchisement to be only de jure at most may soon get a live demonstration of just how undemocratic the federal government can get in Puerto Rico.

Your typical America probably knows the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., is a federal city pertaining to no state whatsoever. But he or she may be unaware that the residents of D.C. are denied representation in Congress, even though the U.S. Constitution grants Congress supreme reign over the District.

Get that? D.C. can’t elect voting members to Congress, but Congress still has final say in D.C. – just like in Puerto Rico.

Also like in Puerto Rico, although D.C. has gained a certain degree of home rule, every single law passed by the local government lies ultimately under the purview of Congress. Unlike with Puerto Rico, however, Washingtonians are subject to all federal taxes, paying over $24 billion in 2013, more than 21 states – and well past the $3.3 billion that Puerto Ricans forked over.

Even still, the 23rd Amendment granted D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections, a right yet to be afforded Puerto Ricans.

Following the D.C. Council’s move this summer to decriminalize marijuana possession, D.C. residents went a step further and voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use (So did Alaska and Oregon, by the way). There’s one potential problem: again, the Republicans are in charge of Congress, the same body that has exclusive authority over the District. In fact, the new law is currently in the mandatory 60-day review period during which Congress can either yea or nay it.

That the new Congress will simply allow this controversial law to go into effect without a fuss isn’t a foregone conclusion. After all, it was House Republicans who voted to defund D.C.’s decriminalization measure back in June. And the War on Drugs happens to be one of the Republicans Party’s pet crusades, having launched it under Nixon and waged it faithfully ever since.

Plus the GOP seems ever ready to impeach President Obama for not enforcing every letter of every law. The party’s rank and file is always harping on the president’s lax approach to undocumented immigrants (a record number of deportations is lax?) and marijuana laws – especially now that Alaska and Oregon have joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana, and a few other states are set to do the same.

Should the incoming Republican-controlled Congress allow D.C.’s new marijuana law to stand, it would show a level of hypocrisy too blatant even for the average political party.

The federal government enjoys a similar degree of authority over Puerto Rico of course, but in many ways Puerto Ricans have it much worse.

State governments receive their authority from the people they govern, state constitutions being drafted and approved by the people themselves. The same cannot be said for the residents of Puerto Rico, whose colonial constitution had to be approved by Congress – again, legislators not chosen by them. To put it simply, the Illinois government is empowered by the people of Illinois, whereas the Puerto Rican government is authorized by Congress.

Also might I remind you that the federal government’s presence in D.C. began peacefully, with a charter. The U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico, on the other hand, burst from the barrel of a rifle when the United States invaded in 1898. Such a violent redeath leaves Puerto Ricans much more vulnerable to federal abuse, as the island is considered both historically and legally as something seized by force. For instance, while people born in either the capital or Puerto Rico are granted U.S. citizenship, the kind granted to Puerto Ricans is subject to the whims of Congress, which can at a moment’s notice, strip the citizenship of every person born on the island.

Some may think it brash to assume that a Republican-controlled Congress will oppose greater autonomy for Puerto Rico. An otherwise intelligent independentista even brought up the fact that Luis Fortuño, the former pro-statehood governor, runs with Republicans stateside, and that Reagan was a vocal supporter of statehood as well. The line of thinking seems to be that Republicans might push for Puerto Rican statehood more than the Dems ever have.

First, it’s heartening to discover who still believe anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth? What do you expect an American office seeker to say? That he or she supports the status quo — or even independence? Imagine that!

Again, D.C. provides a litmus test for the GOP’s stance on statehood, as a recent piece in the New York Times described how D.C.’s own push for statehood was being thwarted by “Republicans [who] seek to block representation for an overwhelmingly Democratic city.” Puerto Rico seen as just as Democratic and with a population comparable to Connecticut’s, Republicans are understandably reluctant to add two senators and as much as five House members to the blue team – not to mention seven more electoral votes for future Democratic presidential candidates.

So even though for the past several months I’ve urged the readers of La Respuesta to keep an eye starting with Crimea, then Scotland, and most recently Catalonia, D.C. trumps them all as a bellwether for what Puerto Rico can expects from its new overlords in the Republican-controlled Congress.

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