WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice Thursday sent a letter to Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló denying a $2.5 million appropriation for nonpartisan voter education and a plebiscite vote that would allow Puerto Ricans to vote about what they want in terms of their status as a territory.
Puerto Rican government officials told BuzzFeed News they will still likely move forward with the plebiscite vote June 11. A Department of Justice spokesperson said their role in the matter was limited to the issue of whether to appropriate funds.
Most of the issues raised by DOJ in the letter related to the goal of the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status that the popular will of the people of Puerto Rico be ascertained in a clear way. The letter argued that the 2012 plebiscite vote, in which a majority rejected the current status and chose statehood, was "the subject of controversy" and much had changed in five years politically, economically, and demographically on the island, which means it is unclear that residents reject the status quo territory option. (The upcoming plebiscite as written only gives "statehood" and "free association/independence" as the two options, not the current territory option.)
In a series of tweets, Puerto Rico's governor said it was "unacceptable" to include a "colony" option in an effort to decolonize Puerto Rico. The Trump administration's position, he said, is contrary to the will of the Puerto Rican people who have rejected a continuation of a colonial system that is wrong.
"I think that this is an attempt by the attorney general to singlehandedly go against what has been the policy of the U.S. for the last 25 years," said Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico's former secretary of state, who said that there is no dispute that the island is a territory of the United States. "Therefore present status can not be part of the options to resolve — resolve means solutions, an alternative to the problem itself."
Puerto Rico has in recent years been felled by a financial and health care crisis. McClintock said the 2011 White House task force came to the conclusion that in order to resolve Puerto Rico’s economic problems "you have to address the political status problem or the economic situation will not improve."
The DOJ letter also took issue with how the 2017 plebiscite is worded, including the description of statehood as the only option that guarantees American citizenship by birth in Puerto Rico and the description of "free association," which the agency said could be misleading.
The DOJ declined comment beyond the letter.
Puerto Rican officials said that in calls before and after the decision was made, DOJ officials remained open to working with the Puerto Rican government. Officials said they will study the DOJ recommendations but fully intend to move forward with the plebiscite, though there is concern that the vote will not be recognized by Congress moving forward. Still, Governor Rosselló called the June 11 plebiscite the most important vote that will reveal the will of the people.
But in conversations after the decision came down, statehood supporters were sharply criticized Sessions individually.
"He's almost acting on this holy Thursday evening as a Judas who is being traitorous to longstanding American policy on Puerto Rico," McClintock said.