EXCLUSIVE: Ocasio-Cortez on the Future of Puerto Rico Status Act

Jun 8, 2022
9:02 PM

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Via the House Committee on Natural Resources/Public Domain)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Days after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) traveled to Puerto Rico with three fellow House members to hold a public forum to discuss the new Puerto Rico Status Act Discussion Draft, Latino Rebels caught up with the New York Democrat on Wednesday evening for an update on the bill.

Here is a transcript of that conversation:

Latino Rebels:  First of all, how was your trip to Puerto Rico?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I thought it was good. I thought it was very instructive because really our goal is developing and trying to explore what does a decolonial process that is non-violent in the 21st century look like? It starts with a draft, and then we go down there and we get a lot of feedback. and I felt that the feedback from all parties was very instructive. That being said, it still is not at the level of transparency that we need for people in Puerto Rico. I will not support any legislation that has not been translated into Spanish and shared with the Puerto Rican electorate first. But I do sense an openness from the committee in hearing that out, particularly because all parties —statehood, free association, and independence— all stressed during the hearing the importance of the Spanish language.

LR: Is there a precedent for translating bills into Spanish for distribution?
AOC: That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I know what I’ve asked for, but I don’t know if it’s ever been done before.

LR: Is that something that a committee chair approves?
AOC: I’ve submitted the ask to the committee chairman, and it’s something that they’re currently exploring.

LR: Can you give any examples of some of the feedback that you got from the people down in Puerto Rico?
AOC: With respect to the bill itself, there are certain key provisions that haven’t been addressed. For one, what exactly defines a majority in a plebiscite? Because when you have a multi-party, government like Puerto Rico, does that mean just whoever has the largest plurality? Because that’s how New York runs their elections. Is that 50%? Is that 55%? or 60%? Because we’re talking about essentially an irreversible decision that is binding.

So if you have a 1% or 2% difference in the electorate, is that sufficient to make such an irreversible decision? Especially when you have when you routinely have certain situations here —whether it’s in the House or the Senate— that require a supermajority. So these, I think, are valid questions about the precise definition of majority.

There were members from all parties that stressed the codification of the Spanish language in the legislation itself. There were many many relevant issues that had come up, like transition periods, citizenship, and reparations.

I personally believe that regardless of the situation, the United States owes a reparative decolonial process, regardless of what the ultimate status is.

LR: What would a reparations program or reparation idea look like? Or what are people asking for in terms of reparations?
AOC: I think that there’s a window of opportunity for that in the compact possibility with the sovereign free association option. We saw an example of that with the nation of Palau, which voted to decolonize in 1994 via a sovereign free association agreement. In their compact, they’ve negotiated several things with both a push and a pull with the United States.

For example, the nation of Palau agreed to use the U.S. dollar, but they also have access to U.S. educational institutions, and their citizens are able to access the [Affordable Care Act] health insurance system.

So I think that determining what reparations will look like has to be a bilateral process, regardless of what status —statehood, free association, or independence— is selected.

LR: Can you offer any clarity as to whether the Puerto Rican diaspora would get to vote in the binding plebiscite?
AOC: I think that is one of the biggest questions that I’ve been receiving, as well. That’s a question that I’ve been raising to the committee. Another big question as well is whether Act 60 recipients would be allowed to participate in these elections.

Act 60 recipients are essentially a class of investors who do not pay Puerto Rican or federal taxes, that claim residency but don’t actually contribute to the infrastructure of the island.

This is a phenomenon that is highly controversial on the island because it’s seen as responsible for a great deal of displacement of native Puerto Ricans, both within and out of the island.

And so I think these are two sides of the same coin. Where would diaspora residents get to vote? How do you define Diaspora—second, third generation? Would Act 60 recipients who don’t really have the same community investment on the island but have disproportionate financial investments, whether they’ve lived here a short period, would they be able to vote? These are all questions.

LR: These are big questions in a legislative calendar that continues to grow shorter. Do you think that the committee process is going to be able to answer these questions in a way that can make it to a floor vote?
AOC: I know that the goal was that, but I think that we do have a lot of questions to sort out and I am not interested in rushing through an undemocratic process, on one hand. On the other hand, some people may look at the politics of the situation and cynically assert that it’s not worth trying, but I think one of the reasons we’re in this situation is because we never have figured out what a just process looks like, independent of any political possibility or window.

One thing that I know as a congresswoman is that people work on legislation for 10 years and then when the political window opens up, it moves fast. The problem that we’ve had is that no one has been developing this process—what an actual just, legitimate process that is respected and acknowledged by all parties, not just one, looks like.

We have a first draft right now after 124 years of colonization, and so that’s why my message to the cynics on this process is independent of any short term political prospects.

We need to figure this out. And we need to come to a consensus on what that process looks like so that when the political window opens— whether it’s between now and September, or whether it’s another time in the future— we will have this ready to move.

So that’s my perspective: what makes this moment compelling is not the window. It’s the will. We’ve had multiple Puerto Rican members of Congress from very different perspectives actually come to a consensus. We have never had a moment where multiple ideologies have come together in an attempt on a legal process to address the injustice of the Commonwealth.

That’s what makes this moment different. For the first time, we’ve had consensus and a willingness from House leadership to actually draft a binding resolution on status so that the United States has to respect Puerto Rico’s expressed conclusions on status.

So there are aspects of this that are historic. Are we going to figure that out in a shorter window? I don’t know. But to me, this moment is important for reasons beyond just a temporary political window.


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