In an article titled “With one vote, Congress can give Puerto Ricans the right to determine their own future,” authors Rafael Cox Alomar and Christina D. Ponsa-Kraus describe the fact that HR8393 is on its way to a floor vote as “nothing short of breathtaking.”
Since 2012, when a majority of voters in Puerto Rico rejected the current territorial status, the United States Congress has knowingly continued to govern Puerto Rico against the will of the will. “Government of the people by the people” is the watchword of American democracy, and it clearly does not describe the current relationship of Puerto Rico with the United States.
Can Puerto Rico do it alone?
Puerto Rico is a territory belonging to the United States. While it followed the Tennessee Plan and sent elected representatives to Washington before admission, Puerto Rico cannot declare herself a state. Only Congress can do that.
Equally, Puerto Rico cannot declare herself an associated state and make up articles of free association. Again, Congress would have to be involved. Free association is only possible as an agreement between two sovereign nations.
Puerto Rico could of course declare independence. The United States declared independence from Great Britain without getting permission first. However, the people of Puerto Rico do not want independence, so that is a non-starter. Even the pro-independence minority are not envisioning that kind of change. As Jaquira Díaz wrote in The Atlantic, “Those, like me, who argue for sovereignty are not simply asking the United States to ‘free Puerto Rico”—freedom is not Washington’s to give. A return of sovereignty to the Puerto Rican people would require a U.S. commitment to a policy of reparations…Reparations would have to cover many areas, large and small: paying for the repair of the power grid; liquidating $70 billion in debt; undergirding Puerto Rico’s pension funds; and expanding the health-care system. It wouldn’t end there, and many arrangements would have to be worked out, encompassing knotty issues involving citizenship and trade relations. ”
None of these options can be completed by Puerto Rico alone. All require Congress to take action.
Congress must act
Congress is legally allowed to continue to hold Puerto Rico as an unwilling, unincorporated territory. There is nothing in the Constitution that will force Congress to behave responsibly and offer Puerto Rico a permanent political status.
The Insular Cases specifically give Puerto Rico the power to leave Puerto Rico in its current territorial condition indefinitely. Many in Washington and beyond have called for the overturn of the Insular Cases. Until that happens, Congress can push Puerto Rico aside until they feel they have the leisure to consider the territory.
Unfortunately, Puerto Rico’s voters do not have any voting members in Congress. There are no senators from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico doesn’t have a vote in presidential elections. This means that none of the people who have the power too bring HR8393 to the floor have constituents in Puerto Rico.
Legislators listen to their constituents. This means that people who vote in the states must speak up for Puerto Rico. It may be breathtaking that Congress can provide a process for Puerto Rico to resolve her political status with one vote. But we can’t hold our breath until that happens.
Please, if you live in a state, tell your legislators that you want to see HR8393 come to the floor for a vote, and that you want them to vote in favor. Ask your friends and family who live in states to do the same.