Statehood for Puerto Rico Elicits Culture Concerns at House Hearing
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans generally supported statehood for their Caribbean island during a congressional field hearing in the capital city of San Juan on Saturday while expressing deep concern about the unknowns it might bring.
A group of congressmen traveled to San Juan to gauge public opinion on the draft version of a bill that could make Puerto Rico the 51st U.S. state.
It was announced last month by a bipartisan group of mostly Hispanic lawmakers. It has Democratic support but opposition among most Republicans, who say it is likely to fail in the Senate.
The Puerto Rico Status Act would require a plebiscite among the island’s voters on Nov. 5, 2023, that would permanently alter their territorial relationship with the United States.
The three options under the plebiscite would be statehood, independence or independence with free association. The conditions of free association would be negotiated later.
A November 2020 referendum in Puerto Rico showed that 53% of voters favored statehood while 47% opposed it.
The majority opinion appears to be propelled partly by the financial support the United States gave Puerto Rico as it struggled through severe damage from hurricanes, earthquakes and an economic crisis in recent years.
The strong feelings the Puerto Rico Status Act has created among residents were on display during the field hearing at a convention center in San Juan.
“This draft bill, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction,” said Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, a former Puerto Rican governor.
He liked it for the opportunity for the island to rid itself of its territorial status with the United States for the past 124 years but disliked the possibility of Puerto Rico losing Spanish as its official language. He also expressed concern about the lack of a clear transition plan.
Potential disputes over Spanish were part of a bigger issue over “how to protect the identity, the sense that we are unique” as Puerto Ricans, said Acevedo Vilá, who added that he opposed statehood.
About an hour after the hearing started, a small group of protesters who support independence broke into the ballroom yelling, “120 years of colonialism!” Members of the audience booed them while the lawmakers asked them to keep quiet.
Puerto Ricans have American citizenship but they cannot vote in federal elections and have no vote in Congress because of the island’s territorial status. They have a congressional delegate who advises lawmakers on Puerto Rican affairs.
One of the former delegates was Zoraida Buxó, who testified in favor of statehood.
“It’s morally unsustainable … [for the United States] … to continue maintaining 3.5 million of its citizens in a territorial status,” she told the committee.
It should create no problem for Puerto Ricans to maintain their Spanish language and Latino heritage with statehood because of the multicultural nature of the United States, she said.
“We have no doubt the progression of the status of Puerto Rico is statehood,” Buxó said.
Joining the plea for statehood was Victor Perez, a U.S. Army veteran. He said the official territorial status of Puerto Rico only hid what was more like a colonial posture that denied its residents their rights to decide their own destiny.
“More than 250,000 Puerto Ricans have bravely served our country throughout its history,” Perez said.
Instead of being honored by the United States for their service, “We come back home to Puerto Rico and we are denied full voting rights and equality,” Perez said. “We are treated as a foreign country.”
Members of Congress declined to suggest a choice between statehood or independence, only that now is the time for Puerto Ricans to decide.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the possibility of a plebiscite “a historic opportunity” for Puerto Rico. Grijalva is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees U.S. territorial issues.
He said the hearing would help lawmakers revise the draft legislation before formally introducing it in Congress as a bill.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said, “We are in a moment when we have to transform and change the role of Puerto Rico.”
There already have been seven nonbinding referendums among Puerto Ricans on their political status. No clear majority emerged until the vote last November.
The plebiscite envisioned under the Puerto Rico Status Act would be different from other referendums by permanently altering the island as a political entity.
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