OPINION: The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act Is a Legislative Proposal Shrouded in Mendacity

May 11, 2021
5:21 PM

A woman waves the flag of Puerto Rico during a news conference on Puerto Rican statehood on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Puerto Rico wants to be a state.  Last November, 53% of voters said so in a status referendum.

Two bills currently before Congress are being studied by the committee with jurisdiction over territorial issues in Washington. The Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act (H.R. 1522) puts the island on a pathway to statehood. The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (H.R. 2070) authorizes a status convention for island residents to exercise their right to self-determination.

A variety of elected officials and coalitions of Puerto Rican descent including those in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois have expressed public support for the Self-Determination Act. Other progressive groups have also indicated support.

City Councillor Ricardo Arroyo of Boston declared his support for the Act during a virtual event on April 15.

“My homeland does not have the same rights or the same abilities to navigate its own future, as other countries do, and that is wrong,” Arroyo said.

Arroyo and others believe that H.R. 2070 is the best way to permanently resolve the Island’s status quagmire.

But is it?

Unlike the Self-Determination Act, the Statehood Admissions Act ratifies the results of the November 2020 plebiscite, where 53% of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. Island residents also chose statehood in 2012 (61%) and 2017 (97%).

According to two of the bill’s major sponsors —Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D, NY-7) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY-14)— initial versions of the bill promise to develop a framework “created by and for Puerto Ricans, not dictated to them like so many previous policies.”  It then violates this pledge by ignoring the results of three local plebiscites developed by Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans.

The bill is not a well-structured effort to permanently decolonize the Island. It proposes an overly complicated, convoluted process to study issues that have already been scrutinized by a dozen congressional committees and White House task force reports.

The Act fails to establish clear timelines for any decisions to emerge that Congress can take action on. This sets up a process for opponents of statehood and independence to use the status convention as a tool to prolong the colonial, territorial status of the Island indefinitely.

According to Velázquez and Ocasio, initial versions of the bill will develop “a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status, be that statehood, independence, free association or any other option other than the current territorial arrangement.”

But the bill turns a blind eye to the fact that Congress has consistently said that the only viable, constitutionally valid, non-territorial status options for Puerto Rico are statehood or independence (with or without free association), according to a collection of authoritative legislative and executive branch statements compiled by The Puerto Rico Report.

Even former Senator José Ortiz Daliot of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) of Puerto Rico conceded that the current status of the Island is no longer a viable option for the future, according to the Spanish international news agency EFE.

That was in 2005.

Such an admission 16 years ago is more truthful today, especially since it was Daliot’s political party (PDP) that created the unincorporated territorial status that leaves the Island’s 3.2 million American citizens disenfranchised at the federal level.

“In terms of a viable political option, the Commonwealth as we know it has no possibilities,” the former senator said in a statement 16 years ago. “It’s no longer an option for the future.”

“I urge the populares (PDP) to acknowledge our lack of power and work towards achieving a future under free association with the U.S.,” Daliot added. “The deterioration of our quality of life results from our lack of political powers to improve our daily lives.”

In 2012 and 2020, Island residents repudiated the unequal and undemocratic territorial status they have been living under since 1952. This unincorporated territorial status allows the federal government to reimburse the government of Puerto Rico at a lower level in programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

In Harris v. Rosario (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that this discrimination was legally permissible under the Constitution: “Congress under the Territorial Clause of the Constitution (Article IV, Sec. 3, Clause 2) may treat Puerto Rico differently than it does the states as long as there is a rational basis for doing so.”

That is unjust and not self-determination at all.

Recently, Professor Andres L. Cordova of the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico Law School called out Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez for missing the bigger point here.

“It is highly ironic that two Congresswomen from New York aim to provoke the exercise of Congress’ plenary power over Puerto Rico to allow the Island’s 3.2 million American citizens to make use of their alleged natural right to self-determination,” Professor Cordova wrote in The Hill.

“It is only from the heights of the worst kind of legal conceptualism that one can argue that as a matter of political reality the People of Puerto Rico have not exercised their right to self-determination,” he added.

The Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act (H.R. 1522) puts Puerto Rico on equal footing with the states. The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (H.R. 2070) is a legislative proposal shrouded in mendacity.

Contrary to the arguments of some mainland elected officials of Puerto Rican descent, the Self-Determination Act confuses, complicates and delays approval of an honest self-determination process for Puerto Rico.


Gene Roman is a freelance reporter based in New York City. You can email here.