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AOC-Velázquez Puerto Rico bill sets needed path to decolonization, progressives say

Advocates of self-determination are urging Pelosi and Schumer to support legislation that differs from the pro-statehood bill introduced earlier in the week.
Image: A woman waves the flag of Puerto Rico during a news conference on Puerto Rican statehood on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2021.
A news conference on Puerto Rican statehood on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.Patrick Semansky / AP

A group of progressive organizations are pushing for passage of a bill they say gives Puerto Ricans a voice on the question of the island's future status and its relationship with the U.S.

The push aims to present an alternative to pro-statehood legislation introduced Tuesday by two Puerto Rican members of Congress.

In a letter sent Thursday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., advocates from more than 80 grassroots organizations across 16 states and Puerto Rico urged prioritizing the passage of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020.

The progressive groups argue that unlike the bill introduced on Tuesday by Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress and a Republican, the bill introduced last year by New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would ensure that Puerto Ricans have access to "a legitimate, accountable and inclusive process for decolonization and self-determination."

The bill by Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez initially proposed creating a "status convention" made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters who would come up with a long-term solution for the island’s territorial status — whether it be statehood, independence, a free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.

“As the United States attempts to right so many injustices, it must also shed its colonial legacy by supporting the leadership and decision-making of Puerto Ricans,” Erica González, director of Power 4 Puerto Rico, said in a statement, adding that the framework stated in the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act "leaves no Puerto Rican behind in a decolonization process that must be conducted with the utmost seriousness, integrity and detail that the Island deserves.” 

Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez are expected to reintroduce their bill in the House sometime this year in an effort to garner more support in Congress. The original bill was introduced last year with 20 Democratic co-sponsors.

"This Congress and the Biden-Harris administration have an historic opportunity to take a serious look at the impact colonialism has had on Puerto Rico and change course," Julio López Varona, director of community dignity campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, said in a statement.

The Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act, introduced Tuesday by Soto and González, aims to create a framework to make the island a state, "including a presidential proclamation upon its passage, a ratification vote, the election of U.S. senators and representatives and the continuity of laws, government, and obligations," Soto said at a news conference.

The statehood bill has the support of at least 49 House members, 13 Republicans and 36 Democrats, according to González. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., is expected to eventually introduce a version of the bill in the Senate.

The legislation proposed by Soto and González follows a nonbinding referendum that took place in Puerto Rico last November. It directly asked voters whether Puerto Rico should immediately be admitted as a state. With nearly 55 percent voter turnout, about 53 percent of Puerto Ricans who voted favored statehood while 47 percent rejected it, according to Puerto Rico's Elections Commission.

Puerto Rico has held a few other referendums in recent years.

In a 2017 plebiscite, 97 percent of those who voted favored statehood but opposition parties boycotted the vote, resulting in a record low turnout of 23 percent. In another 2012 plebiscite, 61 percent of voters sided with statehood, but that referendum was also mired in controversy over the way the choices for voters were phrased.

In hand with these plebiscites, similar versions of the Soto-Gonzalez statehood bill have unsuccessfully been introduced in Congress since at least 2015.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, a long-time statehood advocate, said in a statement in Spanish on Thursday that the latest Soto-Gonzalez statehood bill "is the answer to that mandate," referring to the previous referendums.

“It is time for Congress to act, we have been American citizens for over 100 years and the time has come for us to have equality," Pierluisi said. "Those of us who aspire to equality will never consent to the discrimination and inequality that we have when, despite being American citizens, just because we live in Puerto Rico, we do not have the same rights as those who reside in the states."

Three former Puerto Rico governors who support the island's current territorial status blasted Pierluisi and other pro-statehood Puerto Ricans for framing the statehood debate as a civil rights issue in an effort to seek support from U.S. liberals, as they stated in a letter sent to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris last month.

"Liberals must view the issue of Puerto Rico status, not as a civil rights issue affecting a group within that debate, but as a self-determination issue where all the stakeholders are entitled to a fair process. That is what has been lacking," former Govs. Sila María Calderón, Anibal Acevedo Vilá and Alejandro García Padilla said in the letter.

Black Lives Matter Greater New York is among the groups that co-signed the letter to Schumer and Pelosi supporting Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez's bill.

"Since the transatlantic slave trade, Black people across the diaspora remain shackled by systemic oppression. It is our duty to denounce the imperialism through which the U.S. holds and treats island nations under its colonial rule," Chivona Newsome, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, said in a statement. "Congress has the power to stop colonization. Failure to support the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act by any member is to uphold white supremacy.” 

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