SAN JUAN — On Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Puerto Rico Status Act, known as H.R. 8393, which received a floor vote after its approval by a House committee on Wednesday. The bill received 233 votes in favor and 191 against.
Now the race is on to get approval from the Democratic-controlled Senate before a new Republican-controlled House is sworn in on January 3. The bill would need 60 votes in a closely divided Senate to pass on to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed.
The Puerto Rico Status Act, which received bipartisan support, looks to establish a plebiscite to be held on November 5, 2023, to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status. The plebiscite would present eligible voters in Puerto Rico with the choice between three decolonization options —independence, sovereignty in free association with the United States, or statehood— forcing Congress to carry out whichever option Puerto Ricans choose.
“For 124 years Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States. History calls upon us to put politics aside and do right by the people of Puerto Rico,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez tweeted Thursday before voting began.
After 124 years of colonialism Puerto Ricans deserve a fair, transparent, and democratic process to finally solve the status question. I have worked tirelessly during my tenure in Congress to achieve this
Looking forward to making history tomorrow. 🇵🇷🇵🇷 https://t.co/rf1Nv7YhNK
— Rep. Nydia Velazquez (@NydiaVelazquez) December 14, 2022
In total, there have been six referendums to decide Puerto Rico’s territorial status, but all have been non-binding, allowing the federal government to ignore the results. The last referendum ended with 97 percent in favor of statehood —the option favored by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and the ruling New Progressive Party (PNP)— but voter turnout was a low 23 percent due to a boycott by pro-independence voters and members of the pro-status quo Popular Democratic Party.
“Basically, (the Puerto Rico Status Act) forces Congress to implement the winning option—which we all know is statehood,” said Gov. Pierluisi said in a video message posted to Twitter after the “historic” vote.
— Gobernador Pierluisi (@GovPierluisi) December 15, 2022
Crucially, the wording of H.R. 8393 does not remove Puerto Rico’s obligation to pay back “all contracts, obligations, liabilities, debts, and claims.” The archipelago just exited bankruptcy this year, and the U.S.-imposed fiscal control board has repeatedly slashed funding for public services and pushed for the privatization of them to pay Puerto Rico’s debt.
Due to Puerto Rico’s colonial status, only Congress can grant statehood, independence, or free association. Puerto Rico has a non-voting representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (R) of the PNP, a longtime supporter of statehood.
“This is truly a historic day,” she said during debate on Thursday.
While the Puerto Rico Status Act received widespread support from statehood groups, there has been pushback from activists who see the bill as being too “pro-annexation.”
The diaspora activist group Power 4 Puerto Rico noted that the bill failed to include critical distinctions about the language —whether English, Spanish, or both— that statehood would impose on the archipelago’s schools, courts, and government. Currently, only about 20 percent of Puerto Ricans are fluent in English and only five percent use it at home.
“Yo si soy Boricua, pa’ que tu lo sepas,” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) said as she finished her statement in support of the bill, then was immediately instructed to provide an English translation for the record.
Notably, the hearing was not aired in official bilingual public Congressional hearings.
“Like the PROMESA law that so many Members of Congress mistakenly believed would benefit Puerto Ricans, this bill is a Trojan horse,” Power 4 Puerto Rico said in a statement before Thursday’s vote. HR 8393 offers only a fraction of information masquerading as decolonization and tramples over the right of Puerto Ricans to full transparency and a fair process.”
Puerto Rico has around 3.3 million residents, all of whom are given U.S. citizenship at birth but do not have voting representation in Congress, cannot vote in presidential elections, do not pay federal income tax on income earned on the island, and are not eligible for the same federal programs as their American counterparts.
As recently as April, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that excluding Puerto Ricans from the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides benefits to older, disabled, and blind Americans, did not unconstitutionally discriminate against them.
“In my view, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, said in her lone dissent.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL