One thing was certain after an April 27 congressional hearing on the status of Puerto Rico — the majority of those who testified agreed that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony.
The public hearing, held before the House Committee on Resources, considered what the future of this Caribbean nation should be. Specifically, the hearing discussed a report of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, originally set up by President Clinton and which has continued under Bush.
The task force’s report, released last December, draws a number of conclusions that underline the island’s colonial status. Among these is that, under the U.S. Constitution’s territorial clause, Congress can unilaterally change the status and laws of Puerto Rico up to its constitution, which was itself approved by the U.S. Congress.
It points out that U.S. citizenship for those born in Puerto Rico is statutory and not constitutional, and thus can be removed by an act of Congress.
The report proposes a two-step process in which, through a plebiscite, U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico would first decide if they wish to retain the island’s “Commonwealth” status. If the current status is rejected, then a vote would follow to choose between becoming a U.S. state or an independent nation. The final decision, however, would nonetheless be made by Congress.
A bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to Congress, Luis Fortuño (R-P.R.), is favored by the pro-statehood forces and by the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). The PIP reasons that Congress, when confronted with making a choice between giving Puerto Rico independence or accepting it as a Spanish-speaking state, would bridle at the latter option. Independence, therefore, would be the only option.
In testimony before the committee, Rubén Berríos, chairman of the PIP, said, “The inclusion of the ‘statehood’ option in any bill foreshadows its legislative demise.” He added, “If Congress is willing to build a wall along its southern border, would it seriously entertain the notion of incorporating a territory made up of 4 million Latin Americans?” Berríos criticized the report for even including statehood as an option.
Berriós ended his testimony denouncing “the assassination by the FBI on Sept. 23 of last year of independence militant Filiberto Ojeda Ríos.”
Another bill, sponsored by Reps. Nydia Velásquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), would provide for a Puerto Rican constitutional convention elected by residents of Puerto Rico and nonresident Puerto Ricans who were born there or who have at least one parent who was born in Puerto Rico. That bill is supported by the autonomists and sections of the independence movement.
Carlos Dalmau, executive director of the autonomist Popular Democratic Party, said the report and the two-step approach is an attempt “to create an artificial majority for statehood.” Dalmau also criticized those who call Puerto Rico a colony.
A section of the autonomist forces have opted for “an expanded Commonwealth,” tacitly criticizing the current status as colonial, or an “Associated Republic,” where sovereignty would still lie with the U.S. for monetary, diplomatic and military issues. Legal experts have argued that this is unconstitutional because of the “territorial clause.”
A letter to Congress in support of the Velásquez-Gutiérrez bill from Julio Muriente, Hector Pesquera and Sonia Cepeda, co-chairs of the Hostos National Independence Movement (MINH), noted that “it is the people of Puerto Rico who must initiate and conduct the process of decolonization by means of its natural right to gather in assembly and freely determine their future.”
The MINH leaders said that they were not given “an opportunity to present our points of view in the hearing.” They also asked for “hearings [to] be held in Puerto Rico in order to promote the fullest participation of the Puerto Rican people.”