What Senators Are Saying About Puerto Rico Independence

Mar 22, 2022
5:20 PM

AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With Puerto Rico statehood unlikely and a self-determination bill stalled, independence for the U.S. territory remains off the radar of the United States Senate.

“It’s not a credible movement,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) of efforts to secure independence for Puerto Rico. “I’ve been very involved in the items on Puerto Rico. I don’t know anyone who’s pro-independence. I’m sure there are people out there, but Puerto Rico politics is divided between statehood and some enhanced commonwealth status. But independence? That’s retro. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

“It really hasn’t come up,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) of Puerto Rican independence, adding: “I have a very standard view for my entire time in Congress, which is that I’ll support whatever the people of Puerto Rico decide should be their future, based on an honest, unstacked plebiscite.”

“Most of the plebiscites have been fashioned in such a way to get a specific result,” Menendez explained. “So if there’s a straightforward, unstacked plebiscite, whatever the decision is —statehood, commonwealth, or independence— I will support the people of Puerto Rico.”

Referendums on the status question have tended to skew in favor of statehood or the current colonial status, known as the “Commonwealth,” either by offering a limited choice, failing to count blank ballots cast in protest, or holding the referendum despite a massive boycott from voters, along with a number of other irregularities—all of which was the case in the last referendum held in 2020.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) echoed Menendez when asked about the viability of Puerto Rican independence. “I don’t think it’s gonna rise to the level of where it gets immediate, strong attention, just due to all the other stuff going on,” said Braun.

“I haven’t really thought that much about it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “I really think that this is a decision that needs to be made by Puerto Ricans and the independence position in the referenda that they’ve had recently has been extremely weak. … So I don’t think it’s a realistic option.”

Some of the most senior senators recalled how independence had been discussed many decades earlier but was far from a priority today.

“I think it’s come up before, maybe in committee years ago,” said retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL). “There’s a big fight for independence. There’s a big fight for statehood. I don’t think we oughta make it a state. I think they outta have an opportunity to vote (on independence).”

“We haven’t had that before us in a long time,” said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), “so I’m not really up-to-date on what’s happening. But if it’s an issue, I will make myself up-to-date.”

“I think that’s a conversation worth having, and it’d be interesting to see where the people of Puerto Rico themselves are right now on that question,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA).

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) echoed Warnock and other Senate colleagues hoping to discover some consensus among Puerto Ricans on the future status of the islands.

“I think that when we saw the tragedy in Puerto Rico with the hurricane, it came to light all the needs that the Puerto Rican people in the country had,” said Sen. Moore Capito. “So I’m not sure what the distinction of independence is. I think we need to listen to the needs of the Puerto Rican people and then see what their desires are.”


Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports