WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just days after residents of Puerto Rico voted overwhelmingly last Sunday to join the United States as the 51st state, island Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was in Washington to officially report the results to Congress and begin the process of pushing for statehood for the island.
“As part of the democratic exercise on our island, we are making sure today that Congress receive the message that the people of Puerto Rico are claiming their equal rights as American citizens,” said Rosselló.
“The people of Puerto Rico spoke. Congress has to act now. When Martin Luther King fought for civil rights, when women fought for their rights to suffrage, they weren’t waiting for the right time. They thought that the right time was right now. And we need to act in the same way and accordingly," said Rosselló, adding the U.S. has to "take action."
The plebiscite nonetheless occurred amid historically low turnout, with nearly 80 percent of voters staying away from the polls, which opponents have seized upon to question the validity of the vote and push back against Rosselló’s assertion that the vote was a mandate.
“At a time when the island needs as much credibility as it can get, you have a governor going to Washington and saying that 97 percent of the people voted for statehood, when that is simply not true,” said Rep. Luis Vega of the Popular Democratic Party, (PPD in Spanish), which favors the current commonwealth status.
“We need to be talking about other issues, such as the current economic crisis and the fiscal control board and we can’t do that with any kind of credibility when the governor is showing numbers that give the wrong picture,” said Vega.
Supporters of statehood say the votes that count are the ones that were cast at the ballot box and that the results speak for themselves.
“We have a job to do. We have time to do this if we work and if we do our job. This is a territory that shouldn’t be. There are 3.4 million (American) citizens that don’t want to be in a colony anymore,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who was part of a delegation of observers during the plebiscite and who has been involved in the issue of Puerto Rico's status for many years as a member of congressional committees with jurisdiction over the island.
"We’re going to try everything we can to get this done. And I’m tired of sitting around. I did this in 1996. It’s time we let the Puerto Ricans become American full scale,” said Young.
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., was also a member of the delegation of observers and represents a congressional district with a large Puerto Rican population.“The decision is very clear. Now it’s up to us in Congress,” said Soto, who is the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from the state of Florida.
“They have voted for statehood. I said I would respect and fight for their wishes, and that’s exactly what I intend to do,” he said.
Rosselló is expected to soon implement the so-called Tennessee Plan, under which U.S. territories send a delegation to demand to be seated in Washington. The governor would send seven legislators – two senators and five representatives – later in the year after the plan is ratified.
But Melisa Díaz, a DC-based political consultant, is skeptical. “Implementing the Tennessee Plan doesn’t guarantee anything. The city of Washington, D.C. has had a “shadow senator” and a “shadow congressman” for decades and nothing has moved on D.C. statehood," said Díaz. "Plus, we’d have to really look at and evaluate if it’s even constitutional (for the island government) to use public funds to promote a particular status alternative or option.”
Rosselló also met Thursday with Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) as part of efforts to seek support for statehood from a variety of sectors, including the international community.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, the island’s representative in Congress, is drafting a bill that would ask Congress to admit Puerto Rico as a state, and hearings are expected in the House on the legislation, although nothing has yet been introduced or scheduled.
Statehood advocates vow to keep pushing the issue in the nation's capital.
"Congress is paying attention. We have public statements from more than a dozen members of Congress all supporting the self-determination process in Puerto Rico and the plebiscite results in favor of statehood. There is a need for the committees with jurisdiction to tackle the issue," said Carlos Mercader, the director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the island government’s office in the mainland United States. "We know already of an upcoming hearing that will take place in the House and today the governor personally submitted the results to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. Our administration will continue to push the issue until we finally break with the chains of colonialism that have marred the principles of democracy for the 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico for too long."