Committee hearing concludes without favoring any status bill, most panel members support statehood

By The Star Staff

Although the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee ended its hearing Wednesday without a firm decision on which of two opposing status bills to support, most of the members of Congress that participated in the hearing spoke in favor of granting statehood to Puerto Rico while a few remained quiet.

Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, however, said he had asked the U.S. Justice Department for opinions on the bill and would continue discussions.

“The issue of Puerto Rico and status, there was an issue that it was not getting done; well, it was getting done,” Grijalva said. “The other critical part is the division not only in Puerto Rico on statehood but also a difference of opinion in Congress, a difference of opinion in the House of Representatives and a difference of opinion in the Senate. Congress has a critical role. … And I recognize the difficulty of some members, but I recognize we are going to reach the point when we are going to have to move forward with this.”

The committee met to discuss a pair of status bills. One of the bills, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (HR 2070), penned by Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), would determine Puerto Rico’s status through a constituent’s convention. The other, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, HR 1522, introduced by Rep. Darren Soto and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón, would require Congress to admit Puerto Rico as a state and on the passage of a vote to accept or decline statehood.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said that if Puerto Rico were a state, there would be no Financial Oversight and Management Board and the same Congress that put the oversight board in Puerto Rico is the same one that is denying statehood. He suggested that powerful corporations that use Puerto Rico as a tax haven are sabotaging statehood efforts. Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and the American Samoa delegate, Amata Radewagen, also supported the statehood admission bill, as did most of the Republicans.

Former Puerto Rico Justice Secretary José Fuentes Agostini, chair of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council in Washington, D.C., said that with respect to the two proposals before the committee, only HR 1522 represents true self-determination. The bill recognizes the results of the November plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans issued a majority vote in favor of statehood.

“The measure provides a Democratic process to resolve the issue of Puerto Rico’s status with a clear, up-or-down ratification vote on an option with 50 precedents: statehood,” Fuentes Agostini said. “On the other hand, H.R. 2070 seeks to create a federally imposed structure that ignores Puerto Rican votes, Puerto Rican history and Puerto Rican voices. The bill proposes a new process with no accountability and no end date. H.R. 2070 provides no explicit guidance on constitutional parameters and creates a new federal commission. The proposal is not true self-determination, and it is not a solution to the legal, political and moral problem we are discussing today.”

While many in Washington speculate about how Puerto Rico’s admission would impact the political balance in Congress, the reality is that this speculation is not a legitimate basis upon which to deny three million U.S. citizens the full voting rights that they are demanding at the federal level, he added. First, historically past predictions of partisan leanings have missed the mark. When Hawaii and Alaska were admitted into the union, the pair was approved on the assumption that Alaska would vote Democratic and Hawaii would be Republican, he said.

“While some may argue that Puerto Rico must improve its economy and fiscal situation before statehood can be considered, this perspective is based on a flawed understanding of the interplay between a jurisdiction’s political status as a territory and its prospects for economic development,” Fuentes Agostini said. “Territory status prevents Puerto Rico from being fully integrated into the U.S. economy, inhibiting investment.”

And for those concerned that Puerto Rico would be alone as a state with a large Spanish-speaking population, U.S. Census data shows there would still be more Spanish speakers in California (10 million), Texas (7 million) and Florida (6 million) than there are in Puerto Rico (3 million), he said.

Christina D. Ponsa-Kraus, a law professor at Columbia University, said Velázquez’s bill was unconstitutional and misleading because it allowed delegates to come up with status options outside the territorial clause.

“They have explained that a convention would consider statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement. This gets wrong a basic point of constitutional law: There are no other non-territorial options,” she said.

“Statehood is non-territorial. Independence is non-territorial. Free association has been described as a third option, but to be clear: It is a form of independence, with a treaty or compact of free association between two sovereign nations. In short, there are two, and only two, non-territorial options for Puerto Rico: statehood, and independence with or without free association.”

Ponsa-Krauss noted that a huge majority of Puerto Ricans want a relationship with the United States and their U.S. citizenship. She said only statehood offers such an option.

“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,” she said. “The last thing Puerto Ricans need is to debate options that are no longer debatable.”

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia called for Congress to admit Puerto Rico as a state.

“I come before you today to express the will of the people of Puerto Rico, to demand that Congress move forward on the statehood admission process they support, and to end the era in which Puerto Rico has been an exception to America’s legacy of supporting self-determination at home and overseas,” he said. “For many years, the reason we were given for the extension of our colonial status was that the will of the people of Puerto Rico as to their status was unclear. That is not the case today by any means. The process that begins today in this committee must be definitive. The time for debate and study about what to do has passed. Now, in this Congress, is the time to end the denial of these fundamental political, civil, and human rights to the United States citizens living in Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago said the possibility of statehood “is a pipe dream concocted by a toxic combination of colonialism-induced dependency and insecurity in Puerto Rico with the well-intentioned but superficial sympathy of some U.S. liberals who believe that not to support statehood would be to think of Puerto Ricans as non-deserving.”

“Thinking that to become a state of the U.S. is an exalted and privileged condition to which everyone should aspire, they don’t want to be singled out as excluding Puerto Rico,” she said.

“What they forget or ignore is that Puerto Rico’s problem is a colonial problem, not one of the equality denied to a minority under the laws and Constitution of the United States,” Santiago added. “While Puerto Ricans who live in the United States, being a minority, struggle for full individual civil rights, the problem of Puerto Rico is one of national liberation where the collective right to self-determination and independence of a colonial people is an inalienable and universally recognized human right.”

The comparison with Washington, D.C. is illustrative of why the case for statehood for Puerto Rico cannot prevail, and why it is objectively contrary to the interests of the United States, statehood opponents contended. D.C. is financially viable as a state, being a net contributor to the U.S. Treasury, and support for statehood is overwhelming.

Former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá brought the findings of a survey that showed the results of last November’s Yes-No statehood vote were skewed and that Puerto Ricans support other status options.

A poll conducted during the period of July 20 to Aug. 9, 2020 by the D.C.-based firm Hart Research had statehood winning by a close margin, 48% to 45%, in early August. This was nearly the exact result in November, but 54% of those polled thought the referendum was not a serious proposal, even though they were willing to participate.

“One of the complaints of the local political parties was that those of us who believe in those other options were not afforded, some might say silenced from, real participation in the referendum,” said Aníbal Acevedo, a longtime leader of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. “The Hart Research poll did ask that question. When all the options are given, annexation or statehood support goes down to 41%, Commonwealth gets 38%, Free Association 8% and Independence 6% with 7% undecided. Beyond the fact that the support for statehood in that poll goes from 48% when it is a yes or no question, to 41% when the other options are included, it is more interesting that the options of a relationship with the USA other than statehood are the majority.”

Manuel Natal Albelo, a former member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and as of last Sunday, the general coordinator of the Citizens Victory Movement, supported Velázquez’s bill.

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