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Statehood or self-determination? Tensions over Puerto Rico status rise amid opposing bills

“Politics are playing a role in this process that is really unacceptable," José Fuentes, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, said.
Image: People walk through Old San Juan on March 21, 2021 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
People walk through Old San Juan on March 21, 2021 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

Competing bills in Congress have reignited tensions around Puerto Rico's future territorial status and its relationship to the mainland, but a rare congressional hearing has brought a new sense of urgency among lawmakers debating whether to support statehood or a different pathway towards determining the U.S. territory's relationship to the federal government.

The Committee on Natural Resources Office of Insular Affairs hosted a legislative hearing on Wednesday to discuss the competing bills in an effort to engage Congress on Puerto Rico's future — a subject many members have avoided in the past.

The issue of status has long divided Puerto Ricans on the U.S. territory in large part due to how their local political party system is organized. 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.

Such divisions have percolated into Congress in the form of two opposing bills.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Rep. Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress and a Republican, introduced bicameral and bipartisan legislation last month offering statehood to Puerto Rico following a nonbinding referendum in November that directly asked voters whether Puerto Rico should 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.

Another bicameral and bipartisan bill from Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., proposes an inclusive self-determination process by 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, a free association or other options beyond its current territorial arrangement.

“The Self-Determination Act does not impose one option on the people of Puerto Rico. Instead, it allows for a thorough discussion about the implications of each of the status option and what transitional plans would look like,” Velázquez said. “Puerto Ricans have never had the benefit of having any of this information upfront. Congress should commit itself to following through on the self-determination process.”

González blasted Velázquez’s bill saying it “shamelessly ignores the will of voters in Puerto Rico.”

“Letting the losing minority deny the clear choice of the majority in a free and fair vote isn’t democracy, and the United States must not take part in such an egregious act,” González said.

During the lengthy hearing, pro-statehood witnesses continued slamming the self-determination bill, arguing that the proposed process unnecessarily stretches a debate Puerto Ricans on the island have been having for over five decades and opens a pathway to debate territorial options that may not be consistent with U.S. constitutional law.

Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, former governor of Puerto Rico under the Popular Democratic Party, one of the witnesses defending the self-determination bill, said that one of the key parts of that legislation is the creation of a congressional negotiating commission. It would answer the many legal, constitutional, cultural and economic questions that will surface as Puerto Rico discusses ways to transition out of their current status.

“There's a lot of things that need to be clarified by Congress before people vote,” Acevedo-Vilá said.

Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, expressed solidarity with the complexities of Puerto Rico’s status debate, saying that while he is “strongly inclined” towards favoring the statehood bill, it does trouble him that “the indication from the voters of Puerto Rico thus far has not been at the same level of overwhelming agreement with statehood” compared to some of the states that were last admitted into the union, when statehood support was at over 60 percent.

“I wish it was higher because then it would be an easier decision,” he said.

A complicated relationship

Generations of Puerto Ricans have longed viewed their ambiguous relationship to the U.S. as having the best of two worlds, since they are born U.S. citizens while also having authority over their own internal governance. But debates questioning this status have intensified over the last decade following a series of crises and natural disasters that have shined a light on the flaws of Puerto Rico’s current status.

Puerto Ricans living on the island are U.S. citizens who are unable to vote for president. They 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.

“Regarding the status problem, Puerto Rico has been the victim and the United States, the perpetrator,” María de Lourdes Santiago, senator of Puerto Rico under the Independence Party, said in Spanish during her testimony supporting the self-determination bill. “Contrary to the case of Washington D.C., Puerto Rico is financially bankrupt as a result of the failure of the colonial relationship.”

After U.S. laws arbitrarily excluded Puerto Rico from the federal bankruptcy code, blocking the island from resolving their $72 billion debt crisis through Chapter 9, Congress passed the PROMESA law in 2016 to create a federally appointed fiscal board tasked with restructuring the debt. The move has resulted in tough austerity measures.

Dr. Christina D. Ponsa-Kraus, a law professor at Columbia Law School, said during her testimony that statehood would not only grant Puerto Rico the presidential vote, two senators and four or five representatives — but it would also “guarantee equality in legislation that the federal government passes to aid and address issues in the States.”

“As a territory, Puerto Rico is subject either to exclusion from certain programs, such as SSI or to caps in benefit programs,” Ponsa-Kraus said. She added that for Puerto Ricans who want a union with the U.S. and citizenship for themselves, “statehood is your only option because the other options don't guarantee you either of those things.”

José Fuentes, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council and Puerto Rico’s former attorney general, advocated for the statehood bill during his testimony, pointing out that “politics are playing a role in this process that is really unacceptable.”

But he anticipated that the issue around Puerto Rico's status will grow in importance as more Puerto Ricans continue moving to the states “to get better quality of life.”

“We now have 3 million Puerto Ricans living on the island, 6 million living in the mainland. That starts to create political power,” Fuentes said, adding that political power starts to be recognized as more lawmakers meaningfully engage in the debate around Puerto Rico's future.

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