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AOC says Puerto Rico self-determination bill 'does not oppose statehood'

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was responding to criticism from statehood advocates who support a competing bill.
The flag of Puerto Rico waves at a news conference on statehood in Washington, on March 2.Patrick Semansky / AP file

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that the Puerto Rico self-determination bill she is co-sponsoring with fellow New York Democrat, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, “does not oppose statehood” and does not impose independence on the U.S. territory.

“It is status agnostic,” Ocasio-Cortez said during a lengthy congressional hearing Wednesday in which members of Congress debated two competing bills proposing different pathways to determine Puerto Rico's future territorial status and its relationship to the mainland.

The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, a bicameral and bipartisan legislation introduced by both Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez, proposes creating a "status convention" made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters who would be responsible for coming up with long-term solutions for the island's territorial status — statehood, independence or other options beyond its current territorial arrangement, such as a free association.

Another bicameral and bipartisan bill from Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress and a Republican, offers statehood to Puerto Rico following a nonbinding referendum in November that directly asked voters whether Puerto Rico should be admitted as a state. About 53 percent of Puerto Ricans who voted favored statehood while 47 percent rejected it, according to Puerto Rico's Elections Commission.

In an effort to push Congress to act on its mandate to help shape Puerto Rico's future, a House Natural Resources subcommittee hosted its second hearing to discuss the bills and parse through a complicated issue that has long divided Puerto Ricans on the island.

Longstanding divisions stem, in large part, from the way in which local political parties are organized in Puerto Rico. Most people support either the pro-statehood New Progressive Party or the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island's current commonwealth status. A smaller percentage of "independentistas" support the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which advocates for the island's independence from the U.S.

Divisions among Puerto Ricans elicit debate

González-Colón and three pro-statehood witnesses doubled down on their opposition to the self-determination bill advocated by Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez because they believe it will unnecessarily stretch a debate Puerto Ricans on the island have been having for nearly seven decades and open a pathway to debate territorial options that may not be consistent with U.S. constitutional law.

Statehooders also insist that moving forward with the statehood bill is the appropriate way to uphold the will of the people who voted in the last referendum.

Ocasio-Cortez and former Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, one of the three witnesses who testified in favor of the self-determination bill, argued that the debate over Puerto Rico’s territorial status has been “one-sided” and marred with political interests that have historically deprived Puerto Ricans from meaningfully exploring independence and free association as options.

Gutierrez brought up examples such as the 1948 Gag Law, which made it illegal for Puerto Ricans on the island to display the Puerto Rican flag, and a government-sanctioned surveillance program known as "las carpetas" (the binders), which illegally tracked Puerto Ricans advocating for independence for about 40 years. Especially during the Cold War, Puerto Rico was of strategic importance to the U.S. and the nation's military.

The self-determination bill will create a mechanism consistent with international human rights by rejecting any “option of territorial character that will maintain the status quo” and providing a transitional plan toward decolonization, said Annette Martinez-Orabona, director of the Caribbean Institute of Human Rights, during her testimony in favor of Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez's bill.

But González-Colón and the statehood bill advocates argue that details about a transition toward statehood should be worked out after statehood gets ratified in a federally sponsored referendum.

Ocasio-Cortez added that her bill also includes a mandate to ensure all Puerto Ricans are informed about the legal effects of any new territorial status prior a vote, a clause she stressed as important in order to minimize misinformation around the fate of Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring process, as well as the fate of their U.S. citizenship and their current taxation system.

“Take a look at Brexit,” said Rafael Cox Alomar, professor of constitutional law at the University of the District of Columbia Washington, D.C., in reference to the messy fallout from the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. He was a witness in favor of the self-determination bill.

Ocasio-Cortez said Brexit is a perfect example of voters favoring a life-changing outcome without fully understanding the consequences of such a transition.

Fiscal, citizenship issues raised

Congress passed the Promesa law in 2016 to create a federally appointed fiscal board tasked with restructuring the island’s $72 billion debt crisis, after U.S. laws arbitrarily excluded Puerto Rico from the federal bankruptcy code and preventing them from using Chapter 9. The move has resulted in tough austerity measures.

Statehood supporters have claimed that the law and the board would disappear if it becomes a state, but witnesses at the hearing said that the U.S. can impose any conditions it wants in order to allow a statehood transition, including keeping Promesa and the board.

Carmen Cabrera, president of the Faith Council at the League of United Latin American Citizens, testified in favor of statehood, saying a big reason Puerto Ricans support it is because they treasure their birthright U.S. citizenship. They also want to be able to vote for president and have voting representation in Congress, she said.

Christina Ponsa-Kraus, a law professor at Columbia Law School who also testified in favor of statehood, said that statehood is the only option that can perpetually guarantee U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Other options such as independence or free association wouldn’t guarantee it prospectively; that would be up to Congress to decide, she said.

Puerto Ricans don't pay federal income taxes, since they don't have voting representation in Congress. But they do pay payroll taxes, helping fund federal programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which often serve as lifelines in a territory where 44 percent of the population lives in poverty. But as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico receives less money to fund these programs compared to states, because it is subjected to exclusion from certain programs.

José Caraballo-Cueto, an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey who participated in the hearing as a neutral witness, said that “the worst-case scenario” for Puerto Rico’s economy would be to remain as “an incorporated territory.”

“We would have taxation, but not parity in federal programs so that will cost more to Puerto Rico, plus we would lose the tax advantages we have to attract investment from abroad,” he said. “Under statehood, especially the middle class and upper class would have to pay more taxes, but the low-income class will receive more benefits since we’ll have parity in federal programs.”

On Monday, the Department of Justice released two reports analyzing the constitutionality of both bills.

In one report, the DOJ said it “supports providing the people of Puerto Rico the opportunity to vote on whether to become a state of the Union,” but raised concerns over the bill’s lack of guidance to provide “an orderly transition” of the federally appointed fiscal board and other constitutional issues.

In another report, the DOJ said it “agrees that the people of Puerto Rico should be allowed to choose whether to become a nation independent of the United States, become a state within the United States, or retain the current status of a territory,” adding they believe those are the only “constitutional options available to Puerto Rico.”

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