The republican structure established for Puerto Rico in the Commonwealth Constitution incorporates the principle of limiting the use of political power through the separation of governmental powers into three autonomous branches: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Puerto Rican political culture, however, persists in identifying the executive branch as the government, with the governor as its top figure in terms of political and symbolic power. Although supposedly there is a formal separation of governmental powers, in reality the governor is the political leader of the entire government, including the Legislature and the judiciary. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is the custom of the political parties to have the governor or the candidate for governor as the party president. In this atavistic tradition, only second-tier leaders are found in the Legislature and they are expected to be loyal to the leader of their party (the governor or candidate for governor). Any perception of political instability or timidity in exercising personal authority by the governor is seen as a negative that can betray incompetence or weakness of character.

This authoritarian tradition, a burden that contradicts modern values of democratic policy, has its origins in two factors: one historical and another formal (constitutional). The island’s history in terms of the use of political power, first under the Spanish empire for nearly four centuries and later, after 1898, under the hegemony of the United States, led to a centralized government in which each empire delegated its political authority. During the early centuries under Spain, the governors sent to Puerto Rico by the empire represented the absolutist approach of the monarchy, which placed all public powers in that one office. Only by the imperial bureaucracy, without the participation of the governed community, could question the governor. In Puerto Rico, because of the island’s strategic value as the “key to the Antilles,” the governor in office was also given the military title of “captain general.” In addition to having military rank, he ruled over a particular territory, independent of the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) and was directly responsible to the king. The governor and captain general was commander of the Army and Navy, supervised the Royal Treasury, presided over the municipal governments, appointed lesser officials, was superintendent of public works, distributed land, was the highest ranking judicial official, issued ordinances (laws), resolved civil conflicts and even appointed lower ranking church officials. There was no such thing as separation of powers with autonomous legislative and judicial institutions, and only the municipal councils, which were presided over by the governor and captain general, were allowed a weak form of participation by island-born representatives.

In the early 19th century (1812), encouraged by the influence of the values of the Enlightenment and the experience of the French Revolution, Spain adopted a liberal constitution that gave Puerto Rico the right to send a representative to the Cortes installed in Cádiz. Cortes was the name of the Legislative Assembly under the Spanish constitutional monarchy. This allowed Ramón Power y Giralt, an island-born military officer, to be designated to represent Puerto Rico in the Cortes of Cádiz.

But this experiment was only transitory, and as soon as independence movements gained force in the empire’s continental territories and the absolutist monarchy was restored in Spain (1816), Puerto Rico returned to its status as a territorial possession governed in despotic fashion. Subsequent governors during the 19th century, fearful that the ideas of independence that had dismantled the continental empire in the Americas would proliferate, pursued even more centralized and despotic practices than their predecessors had. The so-called “omnipotent powers” were created, which gave the governor absolute (what is today called dictatorial) authority, including the power to imprison and exile citizens arbitrarily without following due process of the law. Any demand by the island natives for political participation in the governmental structure was seen as seditious and was subject to immediate repression. The governor, as representative of Spain, exercised absolute political power in this paranoid and despotic environment.

When the first civil government was inaugurated in Puerto Rico under the United States (the Foraker Act of 1900), the power of the governor, as representative of the government of the United States, continued to dominate the colonial administration without considering representative practices. As under Spanish rule, the governor was named by the government of the colonizing country (appointed by the president) and all political power was centralized in this one person. Under Spain the institution that supervised colonial issues was the Indies Council, and under the United States the task fell to the Department of the Interior, although in day-to-day reality it fell on the Navy. The Foraker Act allowed the creation of a Legislative Assembly, but only the lower house (the House of Delegates) was elected by popular vote. The upper house, called the Executive Council, consisted of six government cabinet members appointed by the president of the United States, like the governor. It was not until 1917 with the approval of the Jones Act that the Executive Council was replaced with an elected Senate. But by then the figure of the governor was established as the political institution with real power and the one around which all governmental action turned. The governor’s powers over the judicial institutions were absolute, as could be seen clearly when nationalist movements arose. The actions of Governor Blanton Winship in 1937 when he ordered the violent repression of the nationalists in Ponce by the Puerto Rico Police, in the so-called Ponce Massacre, were evidence of the impunity with which the imperial political structure acted, just as in Spanish times.

In 1948, a little more than half a century ago, Puerto Rico was given the right to elect its own governor, but the authoritarian traditions of the executive institution were firmly rooted in the island’s political culture. The governor embodied the totality of governmental power and was the principle source of political patronage. What was new about the election of the governor, at least in theory, was the idea that the person would govern for the island, not for Washington. But this constitutional change was not accompanied by the idea that the true political power of the governor would be limited by a more democratic order based on the principle of separation of powers. On the contrary, the government, though now elected, continued to exercise hegemonic power over Puerto Rico’s internal political system.

Another factor that has increased the authority of the governor in the popular imagination is found in the Commonwealth Constitution (1952). Although the Constitution establishes a republican government with separation of power, lists broad political rights for citizens (limiting the use of political authority and abuses of power) and establishes a mechanism for impeaching a governor who abuses power, the Constitution also creates a presidential system of government under which the executive branch dominates the other two branches. Unlike parliamentary systems that subordinate the executive branch to parliament, the presidential system makes the chief executive the most powerful political figure in the country. For example, although the Commonwealth Constitution dedicates 22 articles to the legislative branch and just ten to the executive branch, the duties, functions and powers of the governor as defined in Section 4 of Article 3 are testimony to his enormous political and administrative power. Among the governor’s powers are:

· To comply with and force compliance with the law;

· To convene the Legislative Assembly in extraordinary sessions;

· To be commander in chief of the militia;

· To call up the militia and stop or suppress any serious disturbance of public order, rebellion or invasion;

· To appoint executive branch officials, including members of the governing boards of the public corporations;

· To appoint the justices to the judicial branch;

· To proclaim Martial Law (state of emergency) when public security requires it (this includes suspension of civil rights);

· To suspend sentences in criminal cases, grant pardons and totally or partially forgive fines and confiscations for crimes committed;

· To approve or disapprove joint resolutions and bills approved by the Legislative Assembly;

· To direct the departments of Justice, Health, Education, Labor, Treasury, Commerce, Public Works and other executive agencies.

The constitutional grant of these powers has given life to habits that broaden the governor’s real and symbolic range of power in daily life. For many citizens in Puerto Rico, the governor is expected to design and implement public policies in all aspects of social life, from the economy to providing essential social services. This trend became clear in the 1990s, when the governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, implemented a project to dismantle the public health care system, which until then had been supported by consensus of the Puerto Rican community, under the supposition that doing so was the governor’s prerogative: “This is what I was elected for, to do what I believe should be done.” Recently, when the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court took an openly partisan turn, ignoring professional criteria, the island supposed that once again, despite the fact that the judicial branch is independent of the executive under the Constitution, it is the prerogative of the governor “to appoint his people to positions he considers appropriate, even in other branches of government.”

Something similar occurred in the United States with the post-modern development of the so-called “imperial presidency.” The extraordinary powers acquired by the presidency during recent decades, at the expense of the Congress, the judiciary and the federated states, were clearly evident during the administration of President George W. Bush, who de facto declared war in Iraq and Afghanistan without gaining the constitutional approval of Congress or popular support. He also created a security apparatus with norms and methods that violated traditional libertarian practices of U.S. society. The issue of democracy and freedom in the context of the extensive executive powers of the post-modern world is one of the most pressing and significant issues in the current public dialogue in the United States, Puerto Rico and the world.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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