The federal House of Representatives approved Thursday afternoon a bill that allows the inhabitants of Puerto Rico to choose between three status options in special mandatory elections and end their current 70-year territorial status.
The bill, known as the Puerto Rico Status Law, would establish a plebiscite to be held in November 2023 in which eligible voters would choose between three options: statehood, independence, or sovereignty in free association with the states. Joined.
There were 233 votes in favor and 191 against. The votes were mostly partisan: Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of the measure. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat with roots in Puerto Rico, was the temporary speaker during the vote.
“Today, for the first time in the history of our nation, the United States will recognize its role as a colonizing force and the status of Puerto Rico as a colony,” he said in plenary session.
If the bill becomes law, it would be the first time that Congress would have to accept the result of a referendum on the island to determine the political future of the US territory. The plebiscite would not include the island’s current political system as an option, thus ending the status of Commonwealth in force for decades.
If voters choose independence, the island would join the United States as the 51st state; if they opt for independence, Puerto Rico would become a sovereign state with authority over its laws, economy, and citizenship. Under the free association option, the island would be an independent nation with foreign and economic agreements with the United States, as well as US citizenship for its neighbors for a limited time.
The bill also funds a nonpartisan bilingual educational campaign to explain the three options to Puerto Rican voters. Either status option would require a majority vote to win. If this did not happen, there would be a second electoral round in March 2024 in which voters would choose between the two most voted options.
Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees issues relating to Puerto Rico and other territories, along with New York Democrat Nydia Velazquez, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner; Florida Rep. Darren Soto and House Majority Speaker Steny Hoyer are major sponsors of the bill.
Velazquez, the first woman of Puerto Rican descent elected to Congress, said Wednesday morning that the bill would move the island toward decolonization. She called Puerto Rico’s current political status “un-American.”
“Colonialism ate away at our people’s sense of dignity and self-esteem,” he said. “Colonialism is not only humiliating for Puerto Rico, but it is a shame for the United States.”
To become law, the bill still must pass the Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden.
Over a century of American rule
The United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and established a military government on the island after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917 under the Jones-Shafroth Act, and Congress allowed the island to elect its first governor in 1948. Since 1952, the island has enjoyed its current political status, known as Commonwealth. of Puerto Rico, when the voters of the island voted in favor of this form of government through a referendum.
Under the Commonwealth, Puerto Rico elects its own governor, its bicameral legislature and its municipal mayors, but Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote in general US presidential elections. Your neighbors also don’t pay federal income tax. The island has a resident commissioner who represents 3.2 million residents in Congress, more voters than any other member of the House. The commissioner can sit on committees and introduce legislation, but does not have a vote.
Puerto Rico’s political status is the subject of fierce debate, and its local political parties have historically organized around this issue. Supporters of the status, which has fallen out of favor in the past, said the status allows them to reap the benefits of a close political and economic relationship with the United States while allowing the island to maintain its sovereignty and culture.
Opponents, including people who support a permanent relationship with the United States through statehood or the island becoming an independent country, argue that the current political status is a vestige of colonialism and blame the Commonwealth. of the ills of the island. Puerto Rico has lost hundreds of thousands of residents in the last decade, suffered a severe economic crisis that bankrupted the government, and has had to battle the consequences of hurricanes and earthquakes.
The most recent referendum on political status was held in November 2020, with the participation of around 55% of the island’s 2.3 million eligible voters. The question was “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted to the Union as a State?”, with 52.52% of voters in favor and 47.48% against. It is the most recent of six status-related referendums that have been held on the island since the late 1960s. However, these plebiscites were not binding and Congress was not required to take action based on their results.
The future of Puerto Rico
In Congress, supporters of the bill have stressed that it is a way to allow Puerto Ricans to choose their own political future while moving away from territorial status. Among the supporters of the bill are representatives with Puerto Rican roots from both parties, such as Velazquez, Ocasio-Cortez, Soto and Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, critics said the bill was not decided in a transparent manner and that the options presented do not fully discuss the consequences each could have on the island. Others believe that the current commonwealth political status should have been included as one of the options.
Some critics have also taken issue with the bill’s provisions, according to which, if Puerto Rico were to become independent, it would have to adopt democratic principles such as due process, freedom of speech and press, and equal protection under the law. Although they acknowledged that they agree with these ideas, they question why Congress should determine what it would include in Puerto Rico’s constitution if it were a sovereign state.
Grijalva, one of the main sponsors, said the bill was the result of an “informed and participatory process” in which hundreds of public comments were taken into account during its drafting. He said that, as a person of Mexican and indigenous descent, he felt a “feeling of solidarity” with the people of Puerto Rico. He related the island’s struggles to its current political status.
“The current status of colonial territory is no longer viable and is incapable of providing adequate political or economic benefits,” he said. “The current status of Puerto Rico is what prevents its economic development.”
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, who sits on the Natural Resources Commission, argued that the panel had not held a hearing on the bill and that decisions had been made through “backroom negotiations.” . He said the legislation contained “many worrying and unresolved issues.”
“The question of the political status of Puerto Rico is a decision that changes the lives of the people of Puerto Rico,” he said, “This bill should have been debated. […] It’s bad policy.”
Federico de Jesus, senior adviser to the political organization Power4Puerto Rico, said the bill had reached the plenary session through a “non-democratic, non-transparent and unfair” process and criticized the lack of public hearings.
He also said that the status options presented had critical ambiguities that had not been resolved. The law, he told the Herald, does not address whether schools, courts and the legislature would have to operate in English if the island became a state or how the island’s debt would be calculated at the tax rate.
“If you don’t provide all the details, then you are trying to mislead people or you are running an incomplete process and neither is a true self-determination mechanism for people to decide their own future,” he said.
Source: El Nuevo Herald