Friday, September 24, 2021

U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Holds Puerto Rico Status Hearing

By on April 14, 2021

SAN JUAN — The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees U.S. territories, held a virtual hearing Wednesday to consider two different pieces of legislation to address Puerto Rico’s political status.

The bills discussed were H.R. 1522, introduced by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), and H.R. 2070, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY).

In a statement, committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the island’s political status is an issue for which Puerto Ricans deserve “clarity and closure.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva

“Legislative approaches that have gathered popular support will receive a fair hearing and due consideration in this Committee, and I will not put my thumb on the scale,” Grijalva assured, adding that he wanted to hear about both measure before coming “to an equitable, and hopefully final, federal agreement on a process to resolve the island’s ultimate political status.”

Among the witnesses invited to the hearing in support of Soto’s legislation were Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico Democratic Party Vice President Johanne Vélez, Puerto Rico Statehood Council Chairman José Fuentes and Columbia Law School Prof. Christina Ponsa.

While former Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Puerto Rico House Speaker Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago and Citizens Victory Movement President Manuel Natal testified in support of Velázquez’s bill.

During his testimony, Pierluisi said that for years “Congress has entertained the idea of putting an end to the unresolved issue of Puerto Rico’s political status but has failed.”

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi

“Some reasons, or excuses, if you will, have included that Congress should not interfere, that no option had a majority or that Puerto Ricans needed consensus,” Pierluisi said. “And many members of Congress have preferred to take no position on the future of Puerto Rico’s status and to hide behind support for self-determination. The governing relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has been the subject of extensive study and debate. What has emerged over the past self-determination exercises is an expression of the unmistakable desire of the residents of Puerto Rico to become a state.”

The former two-term resident commissioner said things are different now after the Nov. 3 election, when Puerto Ricans voted for statehood.

“It was a referendum much like many other territories had prior to becoming states. And the majority of the voters in Puerto Rico said yes to statehood,” he stressed. “More Puerto Ricans voted for statehood than for any candidate running in that same election.”

With regard to Soto’s legislation, the Puerto Rico Statehood Act, Pierluisi said the measure sets the path toward the island’s annexation.

“If the majority votes (again) in favor of equality, the territory’s days would be over, and Puerto Rico would begin a transition to statehood. Conversely, if a majority were to reject statehood, then the island would remain a territory with the option to pursue sovereignty, through nationhood, at any time in the future. Let me be clear—this bill does not force or impose statehood on Puerto Rico, it only offers statehood, as the majority wants it, and provides a proven mechanism and the legal means for it to finally happen.”

The governor added that, constitutionally, there are only two status options available: statehood and nationhood. The former, he said, “embodies the equality that Puerto Ricans have voted for now in three successive referendums. The latter, however, as its supporters try to label it, would be based on a relationship outside of the Territorial Clause and the U.S. Constitution, effectively removing Puerto Rico from being a part of the United States and the eventual loss of our American citizenship. A third option, the current territorial status—unequal, colonial and unworthy of the United States—given that those subject to it have petitioned their government for its rejection in favor of full equality.”

As for Velázquez’s bill, Pierluisi said it “offers a convoluted process to include unknown options or other routes that Puerto Rico’s voters have already rejected.”

“Anything to avoid accepting the will of the people. H.R. 2070, ironically called the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act, is the farthest thing from self-determination. It is the epitome of colonialism. It not only ignores the people’s vote, but it also aims to tell Puerto Ricans what the process to express our will should be. That is not self-determination; that is an imposed determination,” he asserted.

In his testimony, Acevedo Vilá said no mandate to grant Puerto Rico statehood exists.

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá

“Yes, the people of Puerto Rico voted 52.5% to 47.5% in favor of statehood in a non-binding referendum held on Election Day 2020. But that was a referendum rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice, and by four of the five political parties in Puerto Rico, because all the other options for the future political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States were excluded from the ballot,” the former governor pointed out.

He assured that Puerto Ricans do support other options, saying tha statehood is not the only option for either Puerto Rico or the United States and referred to a poll conducted in 2020 by Washington, D.C.-based Hart Research. 

“Their results were extremely accurate regarding the final outcome in November, and included very relevant questions related to the statehood referendum,” Acevedo Vilá said. “The Hart Research poll had statehood winning by a close margin, 48% to 45%, in early August. This was nearly the exact result in November. Interestingly, 54% of those polled thought the referendum was not a serious proposal, even though they were willing to participate.”

He said the most important component of Velázquez’s bill was that it creates a Negotiating Commission, which would “have to answer and clarify many of the legal, constitutional, language, cultural and economic questions that for more than a hundred years our people have attempted to answer, but Congress has failed to address. Is Congress willing to accept as a state a nation with Spanish as the official and only language in the state courts, legislature and public schools? What effect will federal income taxation have on the economy and the budget of the government of the state of Puerto Rico? Can the state of Puerto Rico keep the triple tax exemption that the current bonds (and that are being renegotiated right now) enjoy? Under what constitutional underpinnings can a non-territorial Estado Libre Asociado [Free-Associated State]  be established? What agreements regarding U.S. citizenship can be established under free association? What transition agreement toward independence is Congress willing to offer?”

Acevedo Vilá explained that under H.R. 2070 the people would vote twice, initially to elect the members to the Status Convention, and later to select their preferred status option. The only limitation imposed by the bill, he said, is that any definition put forward by the Negotiating Commission and presented for a vote must be outside of the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution. 

“That will guarantee that we will really put Puerto Rico on the path for decolonization,” Acevedo Vilá added.

To read the submitted testimonies, visit: https://naturalresources.house.gov/hearings/insular-affairs-legislative-hearing-on-puerto-rico-status

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