(April 29) — Puerto Ricans ought to hold a referendum on whether to keep their island a commonwealth or consider statehood, independence or some other status, the U.S. House voted after an impassioned debate today.
The island became a U.S. territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans are American citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections and have only a nonvoting representative in Congress.
Puerto Rico’s lone delegate to Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, argued that Puerto Ricans should have the right to decide their own destiny.
“The fundamental justice of our cause — to enable a fair and meaningful self-determination process for the people of Puerto Rico after more than 110 years of inaction — is beyond question,” said Pierluisi, who favors statehood. “Patience is a virtue, but my people have been patient enough.”
But Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said the Puerto Rican people have not requested Congress to intervene. “Instead of dealing first with the very real concerns of how the people of Puerto Rico survive day by day, we are telling them our priority is to debate a status bill that will not become law,” she said. “This is a disgrace.”
The bill, which has not yet been voted on in the Senate, sets up a two-step process. Puerto Ricans would first vote on whether to keep the status quo. If they voted for change, they would then choose among statehood, independence and becoming an independent nation in “free association” with the United States. Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, for instance, have free-association relationships with the U.S. that make them independent but have agreements in place for U.S. defense and economic aid.
Critics charged that the bill was unfairly weighted toward statehood. In past votes in Puerto Rico, statehood and commonwealth ran neck and neck, with less support for independence options. But the first vote in the bill’s two-step process would pit the current status against all other options combined.
“It’s spelled the same in English as in Spanish: No, no,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., in voicing his opposition.
Much of the controversy over what Puerto Rico should do focuses on how its options are defined. Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said those who advocate keeping the island’s commonwealth status overpromise that they will improve on the current situation by staying U.S. citizens, but picking and choosing among U.S. laws.
“I want that for the Bronx,” he said. “That’s a great deal.”
Lawmakers also voted on amendments dealing with who exactly gets to cast a ballot in the referendum and the issue of language on the island, where English and Spanish are official languages but Spanish is more widely spoken.
The bill allows not only the 4 million residents of Puerto Rico to vote, but also people born on the island who live now on the mainland now — something advocated by Gutierrez, who favors independence for Puerto Rico.
“The people of Puerto Rico are a nation,” he said, adding, “They have a language and that language is Spanish.”
The bill doesn’t bind Congress to accept Puerto Rico as a state. And it doesn’t say how large a majority of Puerto Ricans are needed to choose a new political status. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Congress ought to require that two-thirds of residents approve before statehood is allowed.
“You don’t want to get married to someone who is only 51 percent sure, for goodness sakes,” Chaffetz said.
A Puerto Rican state would get two senators and probably about six seats in Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service, forcing Congress to decide whether to increase the size of the House or take those seats from other states. In the latter case, New York and Missouri likely would each lose a seat and four other states — Arizona, South Carolina, Texas and Washington — would miss out on seats they would have otherwise gained under the next round of reapportionment.
Serrano said Puerto Ricans are ready to vote on an option that removes them from being a U.S. territory.
“From the time you’re 10 years old, all you debate in Puerto Rico is status and baseball. And status is bigger,” Serrano said.