Monday, July 26, 2021

U.S. House Committee Holds 2nd Day of Puerto Rico Status Hearings

By on June 16, 2021

Constitutional Law Professors Deliver Testimony on Competing Bills

SAN JUAN — The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees Puerto Rico matters, held for a second day Wednesday public hearings on the future of the island’s political status with a number of witnesses speaking in favor of two separately authored bills that seek to find a way to resolve the issue.

Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and lawmakers participated in the full committee hearing that began at 1 p.m.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (Screen capture)

“Congress has a legal, political and moral responsibility to help resolve Puerto Rico’s political status,” Grijalva said.

House Resolution 2070, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, sponsored by Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), would “recognize the right of the people of Puerto Rico to call a status convention through which the people would exercise their natural right to self-determination, and to establish a mechanism for congressional consideration of such decision.” 

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (Screen capture)

The second bill, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, or House Resolution 1522, was filed by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and sponsored by Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González to “provide for the admission of the state of Puerto Rico into the union.” 

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (Screen capture)

The invited witnesses who spoke about Velázquez and Ocasio Cortez’s bill were former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, constitutional law Prof. Rafael Cox Alomar of the University of the District of Columbia and Caribbean Institute of Human Rights Director Annette Martínez Orabona. 

While the witnesses invited for Soto and González’s status bill were Rev. Carmen Cabrera, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (Lulac) Faith Council; Christina Ponsa Kraus, Columbia University constitutional law professor; and Andrés Córdova, Inter American University of Puerto Rico property law professor. 

University of Puerto Rico economics Prof. José Caraballo Cueto was invited as an unaffiliated witness.

Cabrera said during her initial five minutes of testimony, that as a state when the island was ravished by Hurricane Maria, “shaken by earthquakes and enveloped by the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government’s response would have been very different when dealing with these life and death events that have greatly affected our island and its people.”

“If we had already been a state, and not just a territory, the disaster relief would have come more quickly, saved more lives, and the ongoing post disaster reconstruction would have made much more progress than it has in the last four years,” Cabrera stressed.

Meanwhile, Gutiérrez said that “two brilliant and visionary Puerto Rican women” have proposed a bill to end the more than 122 years of U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico. 

“Representatives Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are the embodiment of Lola Rodríguez de Tió and Mariana Bracetti,” Gutiérrez said. “Their bill outlines a careful and inclusive mechanism whereby Puerto Ricans could establish a constitutional assembly to openly discuss, debate, and ultimately select a non-territorial status option.”

The former congressman added that the Self-Determination Act represents the only genuinely democratic legislation about Puerto Rico’s status before the 117th U.S. Congress. 

“The same cannot be said of the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, which has the support of the pro-statehood party, the Partido Nuevo Progresista. The proponents of that bill claim that the Puerto Rican people, en masse, support Puerto Rico’s admission into the union. But this is not true. While they are quick to report that statehood won the November 2020 referendum with 52% of the vote, they routinely omit that a mere 55% of the Puerto Rican electorate took part, one of the lowest turnouts in recent Puerto Rican history.”

On the other hand, Prof. Córdova said he endorses the Statehood Admission Act and opposes the Self Determination Act, saying that a status convention which purports to represent the will of the voters “would necessarily need to include all sectors of the island’s political spectrum, including those that favor statehood.”

“What exactly would a status convention propose that has not already been proposed in the last 122 years by the different political parties and analyzed by the political branches of the federal government? Invariably, a status convention would reproduce the same positions that everybody is familiar with,” Córdova said. “Are we to believe that the delegates to such a convention are to discover any new constitutionally viable formula that has not been part of the political debate for the last century? From a practical point of view, a status convention would not offer any other alternative that we haven’t already had before us and that can be settled by means of a plebiscite or referendum.”

He further noted that a fundamental purpose of the status convention is to lay the legal groundwork for Puerto Rico to claim sovereignty in relation to the United States and the will of the same people claimed as represented. 

“As a matter of political reality, the Puerto Ricans have been exercising their right to self-determination in every electoral event since the approval of the 1952 Constitution and subsequent general elections and local plebiscites, albeit incompletely and inconclusively. The next step in this long overdue process is a federally mandated referendum,” Córdova said.

Meanwhile, Prof. Alomar said the resolution to Puerto Rico’s status is not so much a legal issue, as it is a political one. 

“This is not a legal question for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide, as the high court itself recently intimated in Financial Oversight and Management Board v. Aurelius, but rather a political question that will require a political compromise between Congress and the people of Puerto Rico,” he said. “Achieving this goal necessarily requires a new procedural approach. The time for non-binding local plebiscites is over. Only a status convention, with equitable participation from all Puerto Rican stakeholders, will command sufficient legitimacy in Washington, San Juan, and around the world, to jumpstart Puerto Rico’s decolonization. Because H.R. 2070 offers the appropriate procedural vehicle for achieving that aim within the context of an inclusive political mechanism, this committee ought to support it.”

Grijalva ended the hearing by vowing to continue to tackle the island’s political status issue.

“The process of decolonization of Puerto Rico and the path to self determination is the goal, and the issues for me is full disclosure and transparency. The issue for me is the public’s right to know, the issue for me is that there be a level of public understanding and embrace on the part of the Puerto Rican people on the island as to their path in that self-determination, and statehood is one of the options … but also the process for me is to ensure that those other important prerogatives that any voter and certainly the people of Puerto Rico that have been left behind in federal policy and federal attention for too long need to have. We are gonna continue to go forward,” the lawmaker assured.

“I will work with the ranking member to continue meeting; the process goes forward. These two pieces of legislation continue to be very much the focal point of what this committee will have to deal with. … I’m going to follow up with the Department of Justice in terms of the prerogatives and the powers of Congress and our legislative responsibility in terms of what we can and cannot do. There have been some really clear denunciations about ‘you can’t go any further than this’ because of constitutional limits and prohibitions. I’d like to get that opinion. I’d like to get that pretty clearly as to what the prerogatives are so that argument … is either validated or is off the table.”

Read each witnesses’ written testimony below:

Witness List

H.R. 1522, “Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act”

Rev. Carmen Cabrera (testimony)

President, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Faith Council

Hatillo, PR

Dr. Christina Ponsa-Kraus (testimony)

Professor of Constitutional Law, Columbia University

New York, NY

Prof. Andres L. Cordova (testimony)

Professor of Property Law, Inter American University of Puerto Rico

H.R. 2070, “Puerto Rico Self- Determination Act of 2021”

The Hon. Luis Gutierrez (testimony)

Former Representative, Illinois’s 4th District

Chicago, IL

Dr. Rafael Cox Alomar (testimony)

Professor of Constitutional Law, University of the District of Columbia Washington, DC

Ms. Annette Martinez-Orabona (testimony)

Director, Caribbean Institute of Human Rights

San Juan, PR 

Neutral

Dr. Jose Caraballo-Cueto (testimony)

Professor of Economics, University of Puerto Rico
Cayey, PR

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