On August 25, Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a new bill which they claim enables Puerto Rico to decide its political future through self-determination. However, their bill proposal is problematic because it would confuse, complicate and delay the resolution of Puerto Rico’s ultimate political status.
Ignores past and current self-determination efforts
The new bill establishes a process of “self-determination” for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, but in doing so it ignores the most recent votes held on the island and undermines the plebiscite planned for later this year.
Puerto Rico’s voters chose statehood in 2012 and 2017
In 2012 54% of voters in Puerto Rico rejected continuing under the current territory status. When presented with the only three legally and constitutionally viable non-territorial alternatives (statehood, independence and free-association) more voters (61%) supported statehood than any other option.
In 2017, voters were given a choice among statehood, continued territory status and independence, and again more voters (97%) chose statehood over the other alternatives. Those who have questioned the validity of these results based on the voter participation rate of 23%, deceptively omit that the voter participation rate for the last two referendums held outside of a general election had participation rates of 22% in 2005 and 35% in 2012, which are consistent with the participation for the 2017 event.
The Velazquez-Ocasio bill ignores the will of Puerto Rico voters in both electoral events, even though their legal and constitutional legitimacy has never been challenged in court, and their results stand to this day as the officially certified will of the Puerto Rican electorate.
Statehood and independence are the only options
Decades of findings by federal executive and legislative officials show the only alternatives to remaining a territory are statehood and independence (with or without free association)
In their oped Reps. Velazquez and Ocasio state that their bill would develop “a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status, be that statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.” This fails to recognize that since the 1950’s the U.S. federal government has consistently indicated that the only viable non-territory status options for Puerto Rico are statehood and independence (with or without free association) and have repeatedly rejected proposals for another option such as “Enhanced Commonwealth” for constitutional and legal reasons. Re-opening the door to fantasy options only serves to confuse the status debate and delay the resolution of Puerto Rico’s ultimate political status.
Upcoming Statehood Yes or No vote is self-determination
The bill interferes with ongoing self-determination processes on the island by failing to recognize that the territory’s elected representatives have already scheduled a referendum for November 3rd, where for the first time in history, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico will vote directly on the question of statehood “Yes or No”. The bill preemptively discredits and invalidates the results of this historic vote demonstrating the bias of its authors against statehood, instead of their support for the self-determination that is already happening.
Additionally, the timing of the Velazquez-Ocasio bill at the end of the 116th Congress, and two months ahead of the statehood “Yes or No” vote, shows that there is no real intent to legislate, but instead the bill seeks to confuse the debate on Puerto Rico statehood which is clearly gaining significant momentum at the national level.
Complicated, costly, ineffective process
This bill is not a serious and well-structured effort to provide for Puerto Rico’s self-determination. Instead it creates an overly complicated, indirect and ineffective process.
An untested Status Convention
The bill proposes creating an untested Status Convention, but then fails to specify its structure, how many delegates it would have, or even how the status definitions it develops would be approved before being submitted to voters.
As written, the bill calls for a referendum to be held on the option chosen by the Convention, instead of enabling the people to choose directly which option they want to vote on. The bill would call for the creation of two completely new and highly complex government entities, the Status Convention in Puerto Rico and a Congressional Negotiating Commission, each of which would require creating a brand-new governing structure, holding delegate elections (in the case of the Convention), hiring of staff, securing funding, and setting a deliberative process and defining timelines.
Velazquez-Ocasio bill would burden Puerto Rico taxpayers
The bill funds the campaigns of candidates for the Status Convention, but not the process for their election, which would be paid by Puerto Rico tax payers. It only funds part of the cost for the plebiscite on the options selected by the Status Convention.
The biggest burden the bill creates is the cost of the indefinitely long Status Convention (including its staffing, offices, meetings, hearings, travel, flights, meals, materials, etc.) which would rest exclusively on the already burdened shoulders of Puerto Rico tax payers.
Doesn’t guarantee a status resolution
The bill says that after the whole process is completed Congress “may” pass a joint resolution ratifying the self-determination option, but fails to specify if such legislation would incorporate the transition plan that would enact the multitude of modifications to federal legislation required to change Puerto Rico’s political status into a non-territory option. Under this bill Congress would not have any commitment to act on the results of the convoluted process at all, so the whole scheme could become a giant waste of time and money that just ends up perpetuating the colony.
Risks prolonging the colonial territory by wasting time
The bill fails to establish clear timelines for any of its steps to be carried out, for any decision to emerge, or for Congress to take any significant action. This sets up the process for possible abuse by those who, knowing that their preferred option does not have majority support or who want a fantasy option that is not constitutionally possible, to use the Status Convention as a mechanism for indefinitely delaying a resolution of the issue. Even if every aspect of this bill functioned perfectly, as written the bill could delay the resolution of Puerto Rico’s territorial status for years.
Don’t be fooled; support direct democracy
We agree with Representatives Velazquez and Ocasio-Cortez that Puerto Rico’s current unequal and undemocratic territory status, which hurts both island residents and America as a whole, should be brought to an end. But their bill fails to do that in a clear, direct and timely manner. So instead we should support direct democracy.
Commit to the 2020 Statehood Plebiscite
Encourage voter participation in the upcoming statehood “Yes or No” plebiscite called by the officials that the people of Puerto Rico elected. They were elected on a platform of seeking that status, which is a valid form of self determination.
If a majority of voters in Puerto Rico approve statehood, then everyone who believes in democracy should take action by calling on Congress to swiftly approve an admission bill for Puerto Rico. Only if statehood is rejected by voters should Congress begin to consider other mechanisms to facilitate the island’s self-determination.