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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Members of Congress present draft bill for a binding referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón (R-P.R.), center, is flanked by U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), left, and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.).

By The Star Staff

U.S. lawmakers introduced draft legislation Thursday that, if passed, would result in a binding referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status.

The Puerto Rico Status Act will allow Puerto Ricans to vote to choose among non-territorial status options such as independence, free association and statehood in a year and a half or so.

“After months of negotiations, the Puerto Rican Status Act represents an effort by the sponsors of several different bills to come together and arrive at a compromise that would be supported by a majority of members. I want to commend our members who have been working on this issue for years,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who convened the press conference that included Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.); Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources; Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.); Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón (R-P.R.); and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “I believe the bill represents what can be achieved when both sides come together, negotiate in good faith, and reach a consensus on an issue that is important to us and to the people of Puerto Rico.”

“Puerto Rican people do not want to be a colony and the United States of America does not want to be a colonialist power,” Hoyer continued. “This legislation seeks to address that issue. However, it is just the first step in the legislative process. I want to emphasize that – first step. I want to stress that we are sharing the discussion draft today in order to provide transparency and to solicit input from the people of Puerto Rico before conducting a markup or moving legislation to the House floor.”

The bill authorizes a plebiscite sponsored by the federal government to resolve the political status of Puerto Rico. It would specify and define the non-territorial status options for Puerto Rico: statehood, independence, and sovereignty in free association with the United States.

The bill would provide an objective, nonpartisan, federally funded voter education campaign prior to voting and establish a defined process and time for the U.S. Department of Justice to review voter education materials and ballot design for the referendum.

It would also authorize the necessary funds to carry out an initial plebiscite and, where appropriate, a second-round plebiscite. If none of the three options obtain a simple majority (50% plus 1), it would go to a second round between the two status options with the highest number of votes validly obtained.

The legislation would also describe the transition and implementation of each status option in sufficient detail for eligible voters in Puerto Rico to make an informed decision.

Grijalva said the United States had to end the “colonized relationship” with Puerto Rico but “we want to make sure it is an informed choice.”

“The template is before us. Is it perfection? No,” he said.

Grijalva said he hoped Thursday’s action would put an end to allegations that he had been sabotaging statehood or that he favored colonial status.

Velázquez said Puerto Rico has been debating its status since 1989.

“We agree we must move toward decolonization,” she said. “The current status is unfair. Undemocratic.”

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia expressed joy at the announcement by congressional leaders.

“We thank the congressional leaders that have come together to achieve a compromise status bill that puts an end to the colonial status that has hurt the American citizens of Puerto Rico,” the governor said. “Puerto Ricans will finally be able to permanently choose their political future and exercise their right to self-determination.”

“I am sure Puerto Ricans will once again choose statehood to partake in the same rights, obligations and equality as every other American citizen,” he added. “After 124 years of colonialism, Puerto Ricans will finally have the chance to end their shameful territorial status.”

PDP rejects compromise status bill

Popular Democratic Party (PDP) President José Luis Dalmau Santiago warned later on Thursday that the party will fight the bill because it excluded the commonwealth, or ELA by its Spanish acronym, from the proposed consultation.

“We are going to defeat any measure that excludes the Commonwealth,” Dalmau Santiago said at a press conference. “I have to point out that the so-called agreement to try to move some bills that had no future has left out the analysis and discussion, not only the Commonwealth, but also listening to the feelings of the Puerto Rican people, and that at the same time it omitted the analysis and the endorsement of the Office of Congressional Studies and the federal Department of Justice, as required by the executive administrative order of former President Barack Obama, and which is in force, and has not been overthrown.”

Dalmau Santiago insisted that by excluding the Commonwealth from the draft of the bill presented, “this fact makes it seem like the bill is incomplete and contrary to the best interests of Puerto Ricans and their relationship with the United States.”

“At the same time, it is undemocratic because it is done without the consensus of all the [political] parties in Puerto Rico,” he added.

Meanwhile, the general coordinator of the Citizen Victory Movement, Manuel Natal Albelo, and House minority leader Carlos “Johnny” Méndez Núñez, who like the governor and resident commissioner is a leader of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, gave their reactions to the draft status bill.

“The Citizen Victory Movement has among its central objectives the decolonization of Puerto Rico,” Natal Albelo said. “To advance this process we have proposed a Constitutional Status Assembly.”

He said any proposal for decolonization must meet certain minimum criteria.

“First, it must be a binding process. In other words, Congress must be committed to the process and the results,” Natal Albelo said. “Second, the proposals must be non-colonial or territorial options. Third, it has to be an informed process. In other words, our people have to know what each of the options entails. Finally, the formula that is victorious must have the support of the majority of the country.”

Méndez Núñez, meanwhile, endorsed the agreement, describing it as “a step.”

“Today is a historic moment for Puerto Rico,” the pro-statehood lawmaker said. “Today we take another firm step to get out of this colonial condition that has done so much damage to our people and seek the best alternative, statehood, the only option that guarantees American citizenship and the security of living under the United States.”

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