The American Civil Liberties Union is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
On the evening of Sunday, August 19, 2012, I joined many of my colleagues at the Puerto Rico Bar Association in Miramar, San Juan to await the final results of the day’s referendum election. Earlier in the morning I voted at a location in a San Juan suburb where many upper class residents of Puerto Rico vote. I watched many older affluent Puerto Ricans drive into the parking lot in their Mercedes, BMW’s and other vehicles that are representative of this segment of our society. Their impressive church outfits spoke to their social standing. Voters not known to support what some might call left wing agendas. Voters that we knew would not support our campaign to reject our governor’s attempt to further limit civil liberties in Puerto Rico.
For years we have been living with an administration that has set out to quash any institution or individuals that openly campaigned against its policies and neo-liberal vision for Puerto Rico. At the very start of this administration, the Puerto Rico legislature set out to dismantle the Puerto Rico Bar Association, historically known as ground zero of political dissent. What was a mandatory Unified Bar Association was, through legislation, reduced to a voluntary membership organization. The result of which was a diminished membership and dwindling finances. Puerto Rico’s 172 years old Bar Association, our oldest surviving institution, was in danger of becoming obsolete. So thought the governor and our legislative leaders.
Ironically, the “now obsolete” Puerto Rico Bar Association put out an urgent call to all civil and human rights organizations to join a Bar Association led coalition that would campaign against our governor’s attempt to amend the Puerto Rico Constitution. The people of Puerto Rico were to vote on amendments to our constitution, which would (1) limit the fundamental right to pre-trial bail, and (2) would substantially reduce the number of legislators that can be voted into both houses of our legislature. The first played into the fears of our citizens; fear that has been incrementing with the ever growing crime wave that we currently face. The second proposal for a constitutional amendment fed into our citizen’s desire to clean the legislature of ineffective fat cats with extravagant wages and benefits, for little in return.
All this to cover up the fact that after several years into this administration and three months shy of the gubernatorial elections, there is still no known coherent plan to fight crime. It was also an attempt to cut down the size of our legislature through implementation of a formula that would have all but eliminated the possibility of minority party participation in the legislative bodies.
Our current administration has become known for its heavy handed policies against open government and political dissent and it’s in-your-face confrontations against protestors that has led us to where we are today, what we have coined a Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico. We are talking about an administration that prior to its call to amend our constitution diverted as many criminal cases as possible to the federal jurisdiction in order to circumvent our constitutional prohibition against the death penalty, our fundamental right to bail and the constitutional prohibition against wiretapping.
In essence, the very political leaders that swore to uphold our constitution now see it as an obstacle. So, why not take it one step further—amend the constitution. Our leaders of course are overlooking the fact that the Puerto Rico Constitution is its supreme law of the land, in this scheme of law and order that they envision.
But enough of that, back at the Bar Association, coalition partners and members of the Bar collectively yelled out their approval of the numbers appearing on the television screen, as the press recorded and interviewed coalition partners. As the minutes passed it became evident that the Bar’s call for a united front against any attempt to take back fundamental rights had succeeded. In the end, the entity that had been this administration’s first target in its attempt to quash free speech in Puerto Rico became the principle protagonist in a story of a people united against a tyrannical government with little understanding of what it means to be a democracy of the people.
Icing on the Cake
We later received news that every polling place in the city of San Juan rejected our governor’s attempt to dismantle fundamental rights guaranteed by the Puerto Rico Constitution. Remember the affluent voters in the suburbs of San Juan? I admit that I was wrong about them.
Later that evening, while still at the Bar Association, I was interviewed by CLARIDAD, our progressive news weekly, on my thoughts on the referendum outcome. All I could do is resort to an old cliché—“The People United Can Never Be Defeated.” That turned out to be the opening statement in the article. While I laid in bed that evening, I could not help but think—now why couldn’t I have said something a little more sophisticated?—after all I am a learned attorney.
But what the hell, this time I was right.