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Puerto Rico voting ban lands USA in international court: 6th in a 21st Century American Colonies series

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Author's note:  We interrupt the historical background of 21st Century American Colonies because of recent developments in international court about America's largest colony, Puerto Rico. 

Two cases, one brought by attorney Gregorio Igartua and the other brought by former Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello, have landed the United States in international court.  The issue in both cases is the same, the denial of presidential voting rights to the U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico.


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States has docketed Igartua, et al. v. United States of America (P-776-06) and Rossello, et al. v. United States of America (P-1105-06) as violations of human rights for the disenfranchisement of "four million American citizens".


Igartua has been litigating this issue since 1994 and in 2000 won a U.S. District Court order to prepare ballots for the island colony.  Igartua's 2000 court win, however, was reversed by the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.  Although the residents of Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens since 1917 under the Jones Act, they are denied a vote in federal elections. 


In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Igartua's appeal of a subsequent 5-2 split decision in the First Circuit when he brought his third federal lawsuit against the voting ban.  Having exhausted his national remedies, Igartua then filed for relief from the Organization of American States where the United States is a member nation and is a signatory to international treaties guaranteeing the right to vote.


The United States has chosen to not honor its treaty commitments arguing that the OAS Democratic Charter is merely "an aspirational, nonbinding" agreement.  Igartua has now filed a supplemental motion to his complaint stating "the United States has invoked the Democratic Charter in numerous complaints against other member countries."


Igartua elaborates, "As recently as June 4, 2007, Hon. Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State, invoked the Democratic Charter when referring to the recent cancellation of the broadcast license of the Venezuelan network Radio Caracas Television as a 'strong measure against democracy.'  Such claim by Hon. Secretary Rice constitutes solid evidence of the discriminatory practice of the United States against Petitioners whereby for domestic purposes the policy is one of denial of its legal obligations under the Charter and for international purposes it pretends strict applicability of the Charter.  This is a double standard practice to violate Petitioners' democratic rights."


Meanwhile, former Governor Rossello has brought his own petition to the OAS for relief.  Rossello has picked up an important ally in the nation's capital, the influential voting rights organization, FairVote.  Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, recently wrote to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the "disenfranchisement of citizens of the United States of America residing in Puerto Rico" is of "fundamental importance to our collective work in building and strengthening global democracy."


Richie wrote that Puerto Ricans "deserve the opportunity to be represented in their government."  FairVote joined Rossello in asking the OAS to schedule a hearing in the case in July for Washington, D.C.


The OAS Democratic Charter that Igartua seeks to enforce was signed on September 11, 2001.  While terrorists were striking the United States in New York and Washington, then Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Lima, Peru and told the OAS, "I very much want to express the United States' commitment to democracy in this hemisphere."


The Democratic Charter, now called "aspirational" and "nonbinding" by the United States calls for "secret balloting and universal suffrage."


U.S. Appellate Judge Juan Torruella, when Igartua's case was before him, declared, "The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have waited over one hundred years to regain the voting rights they lost when the U.S. invaded in 1898….The honor and credibility of the United States are at stake."


 For more information on the background of U.S. control of Puerto Rico see first installment in series, April 13, 2007, in author's directory below.
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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer living in Belize. Richardson writes about Taiwan foreign policy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Black Panther Party. Richardson was Ralph Nader's ballot access manager during the 2004 and (more...)

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