A rundown of the Insular Legislative Hearing On Puerto Rico’s political status
Rep. Raúl Grijalva presided over a hearing on two opposing bills on Puerto Rico’s future as Chair of the Natural Resources Committee on April 14.
“It's 2021 and Puerto Rico is still a colony, the oldest in the world," Representative Chuy Garcia (D-IL) said at a legislative hearing on the future of Puerto Rico’s status.
His statement is the crux of the discussion that took place on April 14.
“From the annexation of the island to a century of limited citizenship, the imposition of Promesa and our failures in disaster response, we know that Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. is rooted in a history of racism, exploitation, and oppression,” Garcia continued.
The two sides present at the political status hearing, while they disagree, are in the process of figuring out the best way for the people of Puerto Rico to make the decision. Whatever the people choose, it’s an opportunity to rectify Puerto Rico’s long standing colonial and territorial status, which has resulted in the second-class treatment of its citizens.
But first, legislators both on the mainland and on the island continue to deliberate a path forward.
“Recent events reinforce our responsibility to reexamine the island’s territory status,” Rep. Grijalva said at the meeting. As chair of the Natural Resources Committee, he presided over the hearing. Legislators and witnesses gathered to examine two bills recently introduced to Congress:
The Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, introduced by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).
“Despite the different view of our witnesses today, I hope we can all agree that Congress has a responsibility to play a constructive role in the resolution of Puerto Rico’s political status. We must work executively together through the executive branch and the island’s officials to work through this process while respecting the will of the residents of Puerto Rico,” Grijalva said in his opening remarks.
Puerto Rico’s non-voting Congressional representative, Commissioner Jenniffer González was the first co-sponsor to take the stand. She is a longtime statehood advocate for the island and ally of Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who represents the PNP party.
Gónzalez defended her stance in favor of statehood with the tactic of attacking the Self-Determination Act. She called it “another tactic” to delay the statehood process, and that Velazquez’s bill (co-sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) perpetuates the “unequal treatment of the 3.2 million Americans that live on the island.”
She hinted that the implementation of the Self Determination Act would be a “cumbersome process without any timeline” and that the bill “shamelessly ignores the will of the voters through the process.” Furthermore González, and others that followed called the bill’s title, ‘Self Determination,’ misleading.
After her comments on the opposing bill, she moved on to the benefits of her own. The takeaway is that for her and supporters, there is only the option of statehood.
González stated that as it stands, the current situation of disenfranchisement in Puerto Rico has caused a mass exodus.
“Today as we speak 44% of the island residents live under the poverty level line,” she said.
Following her statements, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR ) took the stand. He is one of the GOP backers of the statehood bill, though in his remarks he made little mention of it, and instead took time to address ways the Self Determination Act could be improved.
Namely, defining specifics that get lost in the legislation.
“It is unclear why electing delegates to lifetime terms to define what status options are available is necessary or accomplishes anything. Additionally the delegates would need to put forward status options for the people of Puerto Rico to vote on. However, the bill does not specify how and if these choices will be narrowed before selection, or if to be voted on, or unanimous,” Westerman said.
He indicated that should the Self Determination bill move forward, it could be hindered by the current disputes between Puerto Rico’s own political parties. Both Governor Pierluisi and Rep. González belong to the same party in favor of statehood.
“If the election for the delegates are lopsided for one particular party, the other parties may disengage and eventually boycott the referendum as has happened in the past,” Westerman said, adding that as it stands, it has a potential to be handled undemocratically.
Another main point the pro-statehood officials voiced opposition to was the Self Determination bill’s capacity open wording — that it is up to the people to decide their future, “be that statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.”
Westerman said this last option “may not be obtainable under the Constitution.”
Dr. Cristina D. Ponsa Kraus Professor of Law at Columbia Law School expressed that the Self Determination bill would send Puerto Ricans “back to the drawing board.”
“The myth of non territorial commonwealth has long prevented Puerto Ricans from reckoning with the constitutional reality that the only alternatives to being a territory are statehood and independence. The last thing Puerto Ricans need is to debate options that are no longer debatable,” said Kraus.
She said that Velazquez’s bill “deprives” them of an offer of statehood, which they have never had.
“Some have tried to blur self determination for Puerto Rico with an admission process for the island as the 51st state. This is not only overly simplistic, but it is also wrong. The conversation should not be about a process — should be about a process that respects the will of the people and not how to stack the deck towards a particular status option,” said Velázquez.
She called out some proponents of statehood, who she commented are taking advantage of the potential for personal gain. Then she set the record straight on comparisons to statehood for the District of Columbia.
She went on to defend her bill, saying it establishes a “fair and inclusive process” by which a status convention is created, elected by Puerto Ricans, and ratified by Puerto Ricans.
“Puerto Ricans have never had the benefit of having any of this information upfront,” she said.
But Pierluisi, in a similar fashion to Rep. González, defended his stance.
He cited the most recent status referendum in which Puerto Ricans — through a small portion of the total voting population — voted in favor of statehood to indicate how things are different than before.
“They deserve an answer to their request for statehood,” Pierluisi added, later also calling Velazquez’s bill a “convoluted process.”
Anibal Acevedo Vila, former Governor of Puerto Rico and member of the Popular Democratic Party later took the stand.
“Let me be clear, I strongly oppose statehood. Like many in Puerto Rico and many members of Congress, we recognize that statehood is not good for Puerto Rico, nor will it be good for the United States. Our opposition is based on historical, cultural, national identity, and economic realities,” he said.
Vila went over the most recent election cycle on the island, where its inhabitants voted for statehood, but that was a non-binding referendum rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice and by four of the five political parties in Puerto Rico.
“On election day, Puerto Ricans elected a new anti-statehood majority in the House and the Senate, and most of the mayors elected that day were also anti-statehood,” he added.
Now in 2021, the statehood party lacks a legislative majority.
“The truth: we remain deeply divided. Any attempt to move forward a petition to make Puerto Rico a state will further divide our people without solving the underlying problem of our colonial relationship,” said Vila.
The first time he testified at a committee on the same issue was in 1997.
“All congressional attempts have failed precisely because they had no consensus in Puerto Rico and were based on the agenda of the Puerto Rico statehood party to tilt the process in their favor,” he said.
At the end of the hearing, Rep. Grijalva indicated that the division on the two issues is clear, both in Congress and in Puerto Rico. As of now, it is unclear which bill holds the upper hand, or whether any will advance.