To be Puerto Rican is to be misunderstood.
After 93 years as American citizens, after 112 years after US forces took the island from the Spanish Empire, Puerto Ricans are still strangers to the vast majority of their countrymen.
When Puerto Ricans come to the mainland, are they immigrants? When they remain in their home island they can vote in US presidential primaries. How come they can't vote for the president in November?
Just a few weeks ago, the US House of Representatives passed HR2499, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, by a margin of more than fifty votes. It hardly made a ripple in the American news business, but it is big news back in Puerto Rico. The law calls for a two-stage referendum giving Puerto Ricans the chance to inform the US Congress of its choice in the years ahead, statehood, independence or continuing relationship to the US as an associated state.
The debate, and the vote, made for some strange enemies: Governor Luis Fortuno, a member of the New Progressive Party and a Republican, supported the law. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting member of the US House, a New Progressive Party member and a Democrat, supports the law. Rep. Nydia Velasquez of New York*, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, all Democrats were against HR 2499.
Status, the legal framework for Puerto Rico's relationship to the United States, has dominated the island's politics for decades. The three main political parties, the New Progressives, the Popular Democrats, and the Independence Party, favor different choices for Puerto Rico's future.
HR2499 asks Puerto Ricans to advise the Congress on their choice of status, but makes no promises to respect the voter's wishes. It isn't all together clear whether the island would be welcomed into the Union as the 51st state if that was chosen in an upcoming plebiscite. And though the island is no longer the home of crucial military bases or a coaling station for American naval steamships, it also isn't clear whether the Congress would simply wave goodbye in the unlikely event that Puerto Rico's voters chose to become a sovereign state with its own currency, army, and passport.
Rep. Pierluisi was a guest on the Destination Casa Blanca program looking at the Puerto Rico Democracy Act. I found him entirely too optimistic about the possible difficulties in absorbing a basically Spanish-speaking state, poor and populous, into the Union. On Destination Casa Blanca this week, Brian Darling of the Heritage Foundation noted that statehood had never received more than 50% in the previous three, non-binding votes. It has never even come in first among all the available choices on the ballot. Darling warned that the Congress would be taking a huge chance in the fact of such a weak electoral results for statehood.
Former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh first gained an interest in Puerto Rico during his time at the Justice Department, and his curiosity was reinforced during his time at the UN, as an undersecretary general , when Puerto Rico was used as a billy club to hit America on the head for holding the world's last colony. Thornburgh insisted on the program that self-determination had been a core American value through history, and that Puerto Ricans had never been given the chance to choose sovereignty: instead since 1898 political choices were made in Washington, and sometimes had devastating consequences for Puerto Ricans.
The obscurity of Puerto Rican history to mainlanders means the push and pull factors of migration, the island's rich and complex culture, and the century-long economic relationship to the US is an utter mystery. Political uprisings were put down by armed militias? Really? When? Puerto Rican farm products treated as imports rather than inward shipments from another part of the US? When did that happen? Why did armed indipendentistas try to kill members of Congress? What were they so unhappy about?
The ambivalent status of Commonwealth leaves Puerto Ricans sorta here, sorta there, sorta in and sorta out. Yet while the issue inflames Puerto Ricans and their politics it seems to get little more than a yawn here on the mainland. The deep divisions over whether Puerto Ricans who have left the island to take up residence on the mainland can vote to choose the island's status was passionate... eventually people born in Puerto Rico but living on the mainland were given the vote.
If you're Puerto Rican, on the mainland or the island, how would you like to see the status question settled? If you're not, how would you like the question decided. Would you be ready to bring two more US Senators and as many as six house members into the Congress?
Watch the excerpts of the program on the Destination Casa Blanca home page, and let us know what you're thinking about the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, and who should have a say in the island's future.
Correction: Rep. José E. Serrano of New York's 16th District originally appeared in this statement as an opponent of the bill, but he is in fact in favor of it.
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