Self-Determination Is Key to Puerto Rico Status Debate

Posted April 24, 2007 at 4:05pm

Today, the House Natural Resources subcommittee on insular affairs will gather to discuss the commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s future status, moving toward a decision that will dramatically affect both the island and the entire United States. Yet many in Congress do not realize the threat posed by H.R. 900, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, a bill that would effectively mandate statehood for Puerto Rico, even if a majority of our 4 million U.S. citizens have failed to vote to become a state in five decades of referendums.

As advocates for statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico lobby hard for their causes, it is essential to recognize the differences — which I witnessed firsthand while previously serving as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner to the U.S. Congress and now as its governor. Support in the District for statehood is overwhelming, yet Congress has failed to move forward with legislation until recently. Simultaneously, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act is being pursued aggressively by some Members, even if they do not understand the statehood bias of H.R. 900, the bill they support, and the turmoil it has caused on the island.

Puerto Ricans’ right to self-determination is highly valued. In previous plebiscites to determine the island’s future, participation has been high and our citizens have been passionate. But during that process, we all have agreed on two basic tenets of democracy in Puerto Rico: that every citizen should have an equal say, and that the system for determining Puerto Rico’s status should be fair and unbiased. Each status option should be considered on the same ballot, with the choice of the people winning. For more than five decades, that winner has been commonwealth.

Now, some people are trying to change the rules of the game, crafting a system to force statehood on Puerto Rico. Rather than give every Puerto Rican an equal opportunity to be part of a process, these statehood advocates have designed a series of referendums that would distort the will of the people.

Supporters of commonwealth have held a narrow but notable edge over the second-place finisher — statehood — for decades, with the small but fiercely proud independence movement running third. H.R. 900 proposes a two-stage vote, in which citizens first would select either a continuation of an ill-defined commonwealth or a category that combines statehood and independence. That would create a merger between those two fundamentally opposite parties, with the intention of building a tiny majority over commonwealth. Once commonwealth had been knocked out, voters would choose between only statehood and independence, with statehood almost assuredly winning.

Puerto Rico has a long and proud history of democratic elections. Never once have we selected a candidate, approved a measure or determined our future by picking between the No. 2 and No. 3 choices. I cannot imagine any other part of the United States would consider such a process. But this statehood bill blindly declares this system would be fair and reasonable for Puerto Rico’s 4 million citizens.

In response, I have worked with a bipartisan group from Congress, including Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), John Duncan (R-Tenn.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and many others, to develop a better piece of legislation. H.R. 1230, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, would give Congressional approval for a constitutional convention on the island. This gathering would bring together delegates representing all of the status options, with a focus on generating solutions rather than continuing the partisanship and divisiveness put forth by the statehood bill. By addressing Puerto Rico’s future in this productive, inclusive setting, we will do more than ensure that all voices can be heard. We will emerge with a status proposal that is legitimate, realistic and representative of our people’s true aspirations.

In Washington, discussions of Puerto Rico’s future often are infused with Democratic-versus-Republican debates. The island traditionally has leaned heavily Democratic in its politics and values. As Congress evaluates competing legislation that would either force statehood or give the power of determining Puerto Rico’s future to its citizens, whether the island is represented by donkeys or elephants cannot be a factor.

Puerto Ricans are excited by the island’s progress in economic development, education, infrastructure growth and fiscal stability, among others. But every day, I also hear from concerned citizens expressing their fear that Congress will pass H.R. 900, the statehood bill — including some statehood supporters who know that an illegitimate mandate for statehood could create serious strife on the island. They want assurance that their voices will be heard, and that no one’s vote will count “more” than another’s. As Congress considers these challenging questions about Puerto Rico, I urge you to reject the Puerto Rico statehood bill and to support H.R. 1230, the best process to arrive at a fair outcome for our future.

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá is the governor of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Previously, he served as Puerto Rico’s Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.