Three Testimonies to Congressional Committee Show Clearly Different Views on Puerto Rico Status Act Discussion Draft

Jun 6, 2022
2:08 PM

(AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

As part of the drafting process for the Puerto Rico Status Act discussion draft, House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva held a public hearing Saturday at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan to seek input from the public. The full session is below:

Reps. Nydia Velázuez (D-NY) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were in attendance, as well as Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (R-PR). As you can tell from the video, many gave public testimony, representing different status options.

Over the weekend, Latino Rebels received testimonies from three speakers, each representing a different take on the status question and the discussion draft bill. We are sharing each testimony here to show the broad political spectrum this discussion draft debate represents.

Presentation by the “Autonomous Statehood Network” of “Victoria Ciudadana”

Speaker: Mario J. Toro

Good afternoon,

My name is Mario Jesús Toro, “General Coordinator” for the “Autonomous Statehood Network” of the “Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana,” a recently created, progressive, people-powered and community-centered political party in Puerto Rico. The Autonomous Statehood Network proudly represents the statehooders that have found a political home in the most progressive political party in Puerto Rico.

I am twenty (20) years old. In that short lifespan, my life experience has been one of farewell after farewell to close family members and friends, who have sorrowfully opted to emigrate in search of the opportunities they can’t find in their own islands. It’s not hard to find the main culprit: our current woes are in large part due to the collapse of the colonial Commonwealth model.

In the fifty (50) states there are Puerto Ricans settling down roots and developing within the challenges and successes that the opportunity to access their open borders and their labor markets entails. The sovereignty of the states allows for the adoption of multiple official languages ​​and the design of a government that is accessible and responsive to all of its citizens, regardless of the language they speak. State sovereignty also makes it possible to promote each culture and exalt the identity and traditions of each People. There has been a development of Puerto Rican identity within the United States longer than there has been a Puerto Rican identity outside of the United States. The United States, for its part, increasingly celebrates its diversity and multiculturalism. Today this is represented in its federal system with the participation of a Puerto Rican woman in the highest judicial forum, the Supreme Court of the United States, and with several Puerto Rican Congresspeople who today are a triumphant example of the tireless march towards freedom and equality that Native Americans, African Americans and immigrants hailing from all corners of the Earth have made an essential and inseparable part of the American Federation.

In the past decade, two (2) self-determination exercises have been clear in their decolonization mandates. In two-thousand-and-twelve (2012), a fifty-four percent (54%) majority decided to end the colonial status quo. Then in two-thousand-and-twenty (2020), a fifty-three percent (53%) “majority” decided to join the United States by choosing “Statehood” again. This referendum reflected a democratic majority for statehood in Puerto Rico. It is clear that the People of Puerto Rico want to exit the territorial clause. This anti-colonial consensus bill acknowledges this. For the “Autonomous Statehood Network,” this consensus bill also respects and adequately addresses both democratic mandates on the table by providing a binding and self-executing opportunity to end the colonial “Commonwealth” status and to finally decolonize Puerto Rico with “Statehood”.

We recognize that the most important development about the consensus bill, consistent with the proposals made by “Victoria Ciudadana” is summarized in the following: that Congress offers a binding and self-executing process to decolonize; that it only includes the three (3) plausibly “non-colonial, non-territorial” options under the United States Constitution and international law; that it provides for an informed process where the People will know what each option entails; and that it be the ‘majority’ of the People freely choosing a winning option, an objective that is guaranteed with the run-off mechanism.

In the “Autonomous Statehood Network, we are satisfied with this consensus bill and wish to respond to some of the criticisms that have been raised.

  • The consensus bill resolves the two (2) main objectives of a Constitutional Status Assembly: first, to commit Congress to act on the self-determination mandates emanating from Puerto Rican democracy by providing a binding and self-executing process that includes a formal offer of the options outside the territorial clause; and secondly, to bring together the anti-colonial forces in a procedural consensus with only non-colonial, non-territorial options on the ballot, with their corresponding transitions, in a federally-endorsed process.
  • The consensus bill contemplates a thorough, publicly-financed educational campaign that is sufficient to combat any disinformation on the process and the status alternatives. We need there to be open, ample and public deliberation with accurate information about the process, so everyone can make a fully informed decision in the most transcendental election for Puerto Rico to date. But that is not to say that Puerto Ricans are not ‘educated’ enough to make an informed decision, as some argue in bad faith. We have been discussing the future political status of Puerto Rico since the United States first acquired the islands, and before even, as a colony of Spain. The time for talk should be concluding soon. The time for action is now.
  • Some have argued that the definition of “Statehood: should include information regarding the federal tax burden and the corresponding changes that would require to our state tax system. We understand that this is not necessary because the tax laws affect citizens differently. Most people in Puerto Rico would not have a tax liability due to their income levels, and the reconfiguration of our state taxes is a public policy decision to be made by the State of Puerto Rico. But if Congress decides to include information relevant to that topic, by way of equal justice and procedural consistency, then Congress would also have to do it for each decolonization option with equal space and content. Much has been said about the Puerto Rican desire to retain American citizenship in the other two (2) options. With this. we want to underline that under “Independence.” Puerto Ricans who retain their American citizenship and live in Puerto Rico will have to file federal taxes. That issue remains a question that depends on the negotiation of the pact in the case of “Sovereignty in Free Association.” American citizenship for those who already have it or future generations under those options will be determined by this process. But if we are going to talk about federal taxes, the truth is that all American citizens would be subject to them under both options, same as it would be for any American citizen residing abroad.

We congratulate Puerto Rican Congresswomen Nydia Velázquez and Jennifer González for joining efforts for the decolonization of Puerto Rico. Also to leader Steny Hoyer and Raúl Grijalva for what has been achieved so far. We acknowledge the titanic work of Puerto Rican and American constitutional law professors Rafael Cox Alomar and Christina Ponsa-Kraus in pushing for and consulting on this consensus bill. And lastly, we want to emphasize that as pro-statehood progressives, we see ourselves represented by like-minded leaders like Mia Bonta, Ritchie Torres, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Darren Soto who are raising our flag with a new generation of progressive Puerto Ricans in America. We look forward to being able to collaborate, from within and from outside the island, for a Puerto Rico in full equality within the American Federation. We trust that this anti-colonial consensus bill represents a big step in that direction and has our support.

Testimony of Boricuas Unidos en la Diaspora (BUDPR)

Speaker: Francisco Amundaray

Buenas tardes al honorable comité y a todas y todos los presentes del público incluyendo a los miembros de la prensa. My name is Francisco Amundaray. I was born in San Juan, a city where I also currently live. I work in the tourism sector as a tour guide and tourism consultant. I am one of various collaborators in Puerto Rico of the NGO: Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR).

We see this project as a positive step toward a true decolonization process for my country Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is an intervened nation, which has never been assimilated by the U.S. We are a Latin American and Caribbean country, not just an Island that happens to be inhabited by U.S. citizens. The process considered here should be slow and careful, and always looking to have a broad participation of all civil society in Puerto Rico. Historically, Puerto Rico’s status discussion has been kidnapped by the pro-annexation party and the pro-colonial commonwealth party; severely affecting the perception of the people towards Independence and towards Free Association. To make matters worse, the independence movement has been historically persecuted by the FBI, CIA and the Puerto Rican Police.

To be truly democratic and fair, the Puerto Rican people need to have all the true facts at hand. Not only the classic political parties should participate but also community, environmental, LGBTTQI, NGOs, small businesses, the scientific community, feminist groups, labor unions, sports, non-partisan political organizations, and the two island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. The People who compose the Puerto Rican nation have very different circumstances in their lives depending of where they live. The necessities of a teacher and single mother living in the suburbs of Bayamón are not the same ones of a coffee farmer in the mountain countryside town of Maricao, or of a fisherman in the island municipality of Vieques.

Once this draft becomes a legislative bill, it needs to have numerous public hearings both in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. Important points regarding this discussion draft:

  1. The definition of Statehood has to be more deeply discussed, especially its economic consequences, what is going to be the language in courts and schools, what will happen to our National Olympic Committee and the participation of Puerto Rico in Caribbean regional meetings. The proposed transition plan for statehood is not realistic and is not supported by historical events of states of the union before their final admission as formal part of your country.
  2. On the other hand, a bill that will compromise a future congress with admitting the colony of Puerto Rico as a state is doomed to fail, so the language in that sense should be eliminated.
  3. Also, Puerto Ricans should be clarified in the sense that statehood is a concession, not a right. On the other hand, independence is an internationally inalienable right. It is our opinion that if 51% of Puerto Ricans want any of the two forms of sovereignty, a transition process should be immediately started following International Law. Nonetheless, the Statehood admission should require an 80% or more supermajority since statehood is irreversible and Puerto Rico as a nation will cease to exist.
  4. Concerning the Diaspora, there are 6+ million Puerto Ricans living in the United States, and they should also be part, at least, of the discussion of a federally binding plebiscite. A committee or working group should be created to explore how to include them in the voting process of a binding self-determination process.

Concerning this particular event, I respectfully ask that in the future more time should have been given to the Puerto Rican society to prepare and have the opportunity to participate in similar events. On the website, the speaker option was never open to the public. The Independence Movement has many organizations that were not invited to this public comment process, and in a future occasion, they should be present here to truly have an inclusive process. I also respectfully ask all of you to please communicate to your fellow Congressmen and Congresswomen that not all Puerto Ricans want to be part of your country. ¡Gracias por su tiempo y atención!

The Unicorn Theory

Testimony given at a Public Forum on the draft bill “Puerto Rico Status Act” before the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, held in the Puerto Rico Convention Center on June 4, 2022. Speaker: Luis S. Herrero Acevedo.

My name is Luis S. Herrero Acevedo, I am a lawyer, political consultant and commentator.

I would like to start by commending the draft proposed bill and the process led by Majority Leader Hoyer and Chairman Grijalva. Getting proponents of statehood and sovereignty to discard old tropes and bring forth new ideas and processes to resolve Puerto Rico’s centenary political conundrum is no small feat. “Gracias Nydia y gracias Jenniffer por sentarse y hablar.”

In theory, this is how the democratic process should work. Thank you once again for getting it done. If approved by Congress, this draft bill will send a clear signal of what a democratic majority in the House of Representatives is willing to offer Puerto Ricans. The draft is a starting point for future discussions and a solution to the status issue.

But, as we all learned in elementary school, a bill does not become a law until approved by the Senate and signed by the President. And, therein lies the problem…

As a political consultant, I understand very well how politicians talk on the record, especially on the congressional record, vis a vis how they talk behind closed doors. Everyone on the dais, and every politician who has served on the Natural Resources Committee since the United States took Puerto Rico by military force, has had multiple off the record conversations about Puerto Rico. And everyone on the dais must agree, off the record of course, there are no votes in the Senate to make Puerto Rico a state.

Not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow.

Since 1898, Puerto Rican statehood has been a mirage, lip service to score cheap political points or raise a few dollars for a campaign. I compare it to a mythical animal, much talked about but never seen. A unicorn?.

Through all its stages as a US colonial territory, there have never been 51, much less the 60 votes needed in the Senate to make Puerto Rico a state. Puerto Rico has been many things to the United States: a naval base and shooting range, a profitable sugar plantation, a tax haven, a bio lab, a Cold War theater used to foster revolutions and counter-revolutions in the Caribbean, a winter vacation spot, an Estado Libre Asociado, and much more, but it has never been, nor will it ever be a State.

And that is the truth. Off the record.

So, let me be the first to say it on the record: Puerto Rican Statehood is impossible in the Senate. It’s a unicorn.

Why will Puerto Rico never be a state, when 37 other territories were able to join the Union? The reasons are many and time is short, but my preferred theory is that although Puerto Rico is owned by the United States, it has never been successfully “Americanized”.

All histories of how territories become states have the same protagonist: a white American man. It’s no coincidence that the last names of the fathers of Texas statehood were Austin and Houston, and not González or Hidalgo. The last names of the fathers of Alaskan statehood were Gruening and Barlet, not Kaitaq or Qiluqi. In its 172 years as a state, California has never had an elected Governor with a Spanish surname. I wonder why…

No congressperson will say this on the record, especially those with a couple of thousand Puerto Rican voters in their districts, but you know it to be true. Even with a democratic majority, there is no filibuster-proof coalition to make Puerto Rico a state in the Senate. “No importa cuando lo leas.”

Even this draft bill confirms the unicorn theory. To this date, except for our republican Resident Commissioner González, not a single republican in the House or the Senate has endorsed the draft. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, who represent over a million Puerto Ricans from Florida, do not even bring the subject up. The mere possibility of adding Puerto Rico as a State dooms this, or any other draft, in the Senate.

If politics is the art of the possible, then Statehood politics is the art of the impossible. To end this Gordian knot, Congress must design a process that can garner the 60 votes needed in the Senate. We need to bring republicans to the table and hammer out a deal.

Puerto Rican politicians have used statehood as a political tool for decades. A cure for all our diseases. A handy excuse to justify their many terrible local governments. Millions of Puerto Ricans truly believe statehood is possible because five generations of pro-statehood politicians have promised that “la estadidad está a la vuelta de la esquina.”

Only Congress and this Committee can tell Puerto Ricans the truth. Puerto Rican statehood is not in the cards. The same way that after many years you now are saying, for the record, that Estado Libre Asociado as was originally conceived, is not viable, you should be as straightforward with statehood.

The wording can be simple and succinct: “Puerto Rico, it’s not you, it’s me. Let’s stay friends. –Signed, US Congress

Puerto Rican politics are changing. A new generation is ready to partner with Congress and design a process that can bring democrats and republicans together and make Puerto Rico a prosperous, democratic and independent nation.

But first, you must speak the truth to us: on the record.

Thank you for your time.