‘In the past eight years, Puerto Rico residents have repeatedly voted against continuing under the current territory status.’
For more than a century, millions of American citizens in Puerto Rico have been denied their constitutional rights of equitable representation in Congress, the freedom to vote for president, and have been treated unequal under the law by being denied the rights afforded to every other American-born citizen, all because of the island’s territory status.
In the past eight years, Puerto Rico residents have repeatedly voted against continuing under the current territory status. And their objection to the current status is not surprising since America’s territorial governance over Puerto Rico has, in addition to resulting in unequal rights, limited economic development, led to a lower quality of life for island residents, and led to massive population loss from residents moving stateside for better opportunities and equal rights.
This is why it is painfully disappointing to see New York Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Nydia Velazquez introduce a bill that could forever cement Puerto Ricans’ second-class status, or at the very least would delay congressional action on the express will of the Puerto Rican voters. Their bill, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (H.R. 2070) says that the past votes on the island’s status don’t matter. It says that Puerto Rico should start an entirely new process through a status convention where elected delegates would negotiate new status definition options with Congress, take the status options back to the island’s voters in a plebiscite, and then bring the results back to Congress for consideration in a way that does not even guarantee Congress will implement the voter’s status choice.
If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. Worse yet, the bill is written without a clear or designated timeline, meaning that the process could take years or even decades to unfold with no final decision, prolonging the injustice of territorial colonialism further.
Instead, elected representatives should support the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act, which “establishes a process for the admission of Puerto Rico into the union as a state, on an equal footing with all other states, based on a majority vote of the people of Puerto Rico.” Additionally, unlike the “Self-Determination” act, this bill recognizes the recent status vote that occurred on the island.
Last year, Puerto Ricans went to the polls to vote on a straightforward question regarding the island’s status—Should Puerto Rico become a state or not? A majority of those who voted (52.34 percent) voted in favor of statehood. All those who opposed statehood and/or supported any other status option for the island voted “no.” This election proved that the only non-territory status option that has ever and likely will ever receive majority support on the island is statehood.
And this was not the first time Puerto Rico residents voted in favor of statehood for the island. In plebiscites held in 2012 and 2017, authorized by the Puerto Rico legislature and governor under local laws, more voters favored statehood than the only other constitutionally valid status options that were presented. Yet statehood opponents, who could not win at the ballot box, focused on raising doubts in Congress, because Congress has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico’s status. The opponents argued that blank ballots and boycotts that occurred on the island should count more than the votes of the citizens that actually participated in the elections and played by the rules.
Sadly, some congressional representatives chose to blatantly dismiss the free and fair elections that were held on the island. Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Velazquez’s bill engages in election denialism, ignoring the voice and votes of Puerto Ricans who have expressed their will through a free and fair election. It is deceptive and dare I say Orwellian by design to name the bill the “Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act”—as if the Puerto Ricans who voted last year were not engaging in an act of self-determination. In fact, this bill robs them of their self-determination.
The one bill that recognizes Puerto Rico’s vote and voters is the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act. This bill was introduced by the only non-voting House member from Puerto Rico, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, and is the only bill regarding the island’s status that restores Puerto Rican citizens’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution. If Congress is going to uphold the fundamental American values of government by the consent of the governed, then members of Congress should pass the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act.
Tony Mele is a US Army veteran and international security consultant.