Updated: May 22
By Pacific Island Times News Staff
U.S. House members on Thursday unveiled a draft of the Puerto Rico Status Act, which would facilitate a federally sponsored plebiscite to establish the territory's political status.
"The people of Puerto Rico must decide the future for themselves," U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said at a press conference. "They deserve to build the future they want."
While Puerto Rico does not want to continue being a colony, Hoyer said, "the U.S. does not want to be a colonialist power."
The draft legislation lays out a process for the people of Puerto Rico to determine the future of their political status.
Among the key features of the Puerto Rico Status Act discussion draft include:
Authorizes a federally sponsored plebiscite to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status.
Specifies and defines Puerto Rico’s non-territorial status options: Independence, Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States, and Statehood.
Provides for an objective, nonpartisan, federally funded voter education campaign leading up to the vote.
Establishes a process and timeline for the U.S. Department of Justice to review the plebiscite voter education materials and plebiscite ballot design.
Authorizes necessary funds to carry out an initial plebiscite and, if necessary, a runoff plebiscite.
Describes the transition to and implementation of each status option in sufficient detail for eligible voters in Puerto Rico to make an informed choice about Puerto Rico’s future political status.
Ensures the result of the plebiscite is binding, and implements the option that is chosen by a majority of eligible voters in Puerto Rico.
Hoyer said the draft was a product of months of negotiation that reached a "compromise that will be supported by both sides of Congress."
"The Puerto Rico Status Act discussion draft is the product of a collaborative effort spanning several months between the sponsors of the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act (H.R. 1522) introduced by Rep. Soto and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (H.R. 2070) introduced by Rep. Velázquez," states a press release from the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.
To this day, the nature of Puerto Rico's political relationship with the U.S. is the subject of ongoing debate in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Congress, and the United Nations. Specifically, the basic question is whether Puerto Rico should remain an unincorporated territory of the U.S., become a U.S. state, or become an independent country.
On Nov. 3, 2020, Puerto Rico held its sixth political status referendum. It was the first referendum with a simple yes-or-no question, with voters having the option of voting for or against becoming a U.S. state. The option to pursue statehood won the referendum 52.52 percent–47.48 percent.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico) noted that Puerto Rican voters have repeatedly voted for statehood, yet Congress has never expressed plans to resolve the status.
"This is the first time that we have a binding plebiscite with only non-territorial options -- statehood, independence and sovereignty in free association with the United States -- and in this way it honors the mandate of the people in favor of statehood, providing a mechanism to achieve it,” Gonzalez-Colon said.
While supporting Puerto Rico's quest for self-determination, Hoyer said the decision must be made by the Puerto Ricans themselves. "These decisions are not up to me, or to Congress, or other elected officials in Washington -- and our agreement will allow our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico to determine their own future," he said.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the natural resources committee, noted that the people of Puerto Rico have weighed in on their political future numerous times with no resolution or action from Congress.
"Addressing Puerto Rico’s political status is one of my top priorities as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and I am proud that we now have an agreement with the potential to pass the House," he said.
Grijalva said no vote on the House floor should occur before receiving input from the people of Puerto Rico.
"So that is the process we are embarking on now. I take Puerto Rico’s decolonization very seriously, and I will continue to push for this goal until it is realized," he added.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), chair of the U.S. House Committee on Small Business, said after decades of gridlock, congressional members have come to recognize that there will be no decolonization for Puerto Rico so long as there is common ground.
"Doing right by Puerto Rico requires that the crossfire comes to an end. And that is precisely what we have done," Velasquez said. "We are sharing the Discussion Draft today to get input from the people of Puerto Rico – elected government officials, groups, and organizations, and the public – before conducting a markup or moving legislation to the House floor.”
Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said the proposed legislation would pave the way for Puerto Rican voters to make a federally binding choice on their future.
"They deserve the chance to have their voices heard, have a clear path to vote for statehood or other options, and mark an end to their second-class citizenship. We aim to continue this discussion and look forward to hearing from those on the island in the near future,” Soto said.
"It is truly historic in having a process of self-determination and decolonization of the island and that we're really talking about ending the colonial status. Puerto Ricans will be able to choose from three set statuses that are actually quite defined. The first is statehood. The second is an actual truly free associated state in a treaty with the United States. And then the third is full independence with no treaty with the United States,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“Today, thanks in large part to the leadership of our loyal ally and friend of Puerto Rico, the Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, we have a compromise status bill, that seeks to put an end to the century-old status problem in Puerto Rico. With all non-territorial options on the table, independence, free association and statehood, Puerto Ricans will be able to choose their permanent political future. I am sure that my fellow Puerto Ricans will again choose statehood, they will choose the equality that is enjoyed here from sea to shining sea,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi said.