The preamble of the Puerto Rico Constitution reads as follows: “We, the people of Puerto Rico, in order to organize ourselves politically on a fully democratic basis, to promote the general welfare, and to secure for ourselves and our posterity the complete enjoyment of human rights, placing our trust in Almighty God, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the commonwealth which, in the exercise of our natural rights, we now create within our union with the United States of America.” The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is the Magna Carta that has established the legal basis for the government of Puerto Rico since July 25, 1952. This historical document is the result of the struggle by the Popular Democratic Party (PPD, for its Spanish acronym) and its leaders to obtain greater political powers under U.S. control. It was and continues to be the subject of strong debates about identity, status and the political definition of the island. Several events led to its ratification.
From the beginning of the 1940 electoral campaign, the PPD declared its intention of postponing the discussion of the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Political efforts were aimed at obtaining more local powers for managing the country. As a result of cutting the link to the controversial and divisive issue from the PPD agenda, and to provide more political autonomy, in 1947 President Harry S. Truman signed a law that allowed Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor. A year earlier, the president had named the first Puerto Rican governor: Jesús T. Piñero. After an intense political campaign marked by direct communication with the people and supported by the personal charisma of Luis Muñoz Marín, the PPD leader won the election and assumed the governorship in 1948, which was the first election held under the Elected Governor Law. Leaders were optimistic about the possibility for writing a constitution for the island to replace the Foraker and Jones Acts.
In 1950, the resident commissioner in Washington, Antonio Fernós Isern, presented a bill to Congress that would allow the Puerto Rican people to draft their own Constitution. The worldwide circumstances were favorable. World War II was over and Asia and Africa had begun their processes of decolonization. The United States felt anti-colonial pressure from the United Nations and the international opinion. Finally, Law 600 was approved that year. The law authorized the convocation of a constitutional assembly if the people approved it in a referendum. It also established the principal bases for the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. The intent of Law 600 was to portray the United States on the world stage as anti-colonial, while retaining control over the island’s political destiny.
The referendum on Law 600 took place in June of 1951. The majority of the voters approved the Constitutional Assembly. It was presided over by Antonio Fernós Isern and consisted of members of the Popular Democratic Party, the Republican Statehood Party and the Socialist Party. The Independence Party did not participate. The Assembly took 5 months to deliberate and write the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Congressional review allowed the opposition in Washington to weaken the constitution drawn up by the Constitutional Assembly. First, it excluded section 20 of article II of the Bill of Rights that had been written in accordance to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations.Second, it included a disposition that stated that any future amendment to the constitution had to be approved by Congress.
Finally, on March 3, 1952, the Puerto Rican people ratified the constitution by a wide majority. In a strategy meant to create new meaning, the date selected for inaugurating the commonwealth was July 25. That was the date of the U.S. invasion. Luis Muñoz Marín and his party leaders thus opened a breach in collective historical memory. They tried to “erase” the colonial experience and began the foundational myth of the nation as a sovereign state. Many were not in favor of the commonwealth nor of Muñoz’s vision. The pro-independence movement believed that the Magna Carta did not change the island’s colonial situation. They argued that the Constitution was not an exercise in free determination if it was subject to the final word of Congress. The annexationists, meanwhile, believed that the commonwealth did not ensure future statehood for Puerto Rico.
It is important to note that the new government was based on the philosophies of the time and modern politics, with strong influences from the U.S. Constitution. What exactly was established with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico? The Constitution defines Puerto Rico’s government as republican and democratic. In what many judicial experts believe is the greatest contribution of the Magna Carta, it includes a broad Citizens Bill of Rights. The government was organized into three separate branches, as under the Jones Act: Legislative, Executive and Judicial. The Legislative Branch consisted of two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The island was divided into eight senatorial districts and 40 representative districts. The Executive Branch consisted of the governor, the agency secretaries and their employees. Finally, the Judicial Branch consisted of a system of courts led by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico
The Constitution’s formula outlined and affirmed the political concepts of self-governance and permanent union with the United States. However, it did not rule out the possibility of adopting other forms of government in the future, including independence or statehood. Immediately after the inauguration in 1952, the issue of the political status of Puerto Rico became one of the most central political discussions of today. It is a discussion that is tied not only to the political definition of Puerto Rico, but also to the very identity of the Puerto Rican people. Political, academic, artistic and literary voices debate over this issue that is interwoven with the problems and contradictions of Puerto Rican modernity.
Author: Yanelba Mota Maldonado
Published: November 11, 2015.
This post is also available in: Español