Two different bills addressing Puerto Rico’s political status are battling for supremacy in Congress.
The Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act (HR 1522) provides a ratification vote for statehood. The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (HR 2070) is not so simple. It calls for a convention to develop status options for a new referendum.
Here is what the Self-Determination Act’s author and sponsor, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, said when she introduced the bill in 2021: “The key is that this framework would be developed by Puerto Ricans and for Puerto Ricans, not dictated to them like so many previous policies.”
Velazquez advocates for 750,000 New Yorkers as a voting member of Congress. She lives with the equal rights of statehood. Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million U.S. citizens live under a status that allows Congress to deny federal benefits to the elderly and disabled. During the past two years, Velazquez has used that pedigree of statehood to block permanent decolonization for Puerto Rico.
She is being called out for that contradiction.
“How is it possible that this congresswoman — who does not live the problem that we live with in the colony — wants to impose a status convention over the direct vote of the majority of Puerto Ricans?” said Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican resident commissioner of Puerto Rico.
Gonzalez-Colon looks out for the interests of all of the island’s residents as the sole, non-voting delegate in Congress.
“A rule we follow in Congress is that no member legislates on issues outside of their corresponding district,” she says, “at least not without the endorsement of the person duly elected by the voters of said district.”
When Velazquez introduced her bill, she promised to seek advice and counsel from island residents. She broke this pledge by ignoring the results of three local plebiscites developed by and for Puerto Ricans. In 2012, Puerto Ricans rejected territorial status. In 2012, 2017 and 2020, Puerto Ricans chose statehood as their preferred decolonizing option.
Jeffrey Farrow, a veteran of the political status battles in Washington, highlighted the paradox of a self-determination bill that suppresses votes.
“A Puerto Rican supporter (Velazquez) of a ‘commonwealth status’ that the U.S. says is impossible — who abandoned the territory for the greater opportunity in a State, and is now in Congress — says that she’ll propose a bill that would ignore and disrespect the territory’s self-determination decision?” Farrow tweeted.
Velazquez says the three plebiscites were poorly designed, unfair and rigged to favor statehood.
“Time and again, there have been flawed and non-binding plebiscites,” Velazquez tweeted. “Repeating that tired process is not the answer.”
From San Juan, attorney Luis Berrios Amadeo chastised Velazquez for discrediting the plebiscites as a voting congresswoman from New York.
“In the 1980s, Ms. Velazquez decided to relocate to New York City from Puerto Rico,” he said. “There, enjoying all the rights and obligations of living in a state, she opposes the equality of American citizens on the island.”
Berrios Amadeo believes the plebiscites were conducted honestly and fairly.
“The people of Puerto Rico — through direct, free, democratic voting, and without the intervention of committees, conventions or any other type of ‘dark room’ — voted to reject the current territorial status,” he said
As partisans continue to debate status, the real-world consequences of unequal treatment continue to be felt in the daily lives of Puerto Rican families.
“Disaster aid marked for recovery from hurricanes trickles out slowly from Congress, federal social safety net assistance — which is unlimited in states — is capped in Puerto Rico,” Berrios Amadeo added.
Lobbying a voting member of Congress is a luxury that island residents do not have. Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon and her constituents live this every day.
“Unfortunately, my colleague doesn’t want the people who I represent to have what she enjoys,” Gonzalez-Colon said. “Every day-statehood.”