STATEMENT BEFORE THE NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE

U.S. HOUSE OP REPRESENTATIVE REGARDING H.R. 856

SENATOR RUBEN BERRIOS-MARTINEZ

PRESIDENT

PUERTO RICAN INDEPENDENCE PARTY

 

MARCH 19, 1997

 

 

For almost a century Puerto Ricans of an political persuasions have struggled -unsuccessfully- for the recognition of our full political rights as a people before a Congress that has, for the most part, been hostile or insensitive to our demands. Today -on the verge of the 21st century it is a source of optimism that

Congress finally begins to recognize its centennial obligation to decolonize Puerto Rico. 

But before H.R. 856 becomes an effective and acceptable instrument for the solution of Puerto Rico's status problem. certain conditions should be met and certain pitfalls avoided, some of which require major changes in the bill. 

1. The essential objective and nature of the bill must be maintained at an costs. This bill unambiguously faces and proposes a solution to the fundamental issue of sovereignty -the issue of where will ultimate power resides- which is the crux of the Puerto Rican status problem. In other words, it proposes a process for the definitive solution of the status problem by promoting a decision between two paths; one, under US sovereignty, leading to statehood, and the other under Puerto Rican sovereignty, leading either to independence or free association. Territorial Commonwealth on the other hand $ viewed as the problem to be outgrown and superseded.

 

2. So long as the fundamental objective of the bill is preserved, the legitimate interests and demands of the participants in the status debate must be provided reasonable accommodation. This, of course, includes not only "independentistas" and statehooders but, also thousands of Puerto Ricans who do not support either independence or statehood.

 

In this context, while independence and free association, as modalities of Puerto Rican sovereignty must continue to be grouped under the same heading on the proposed plebiscite ballot, their distinctiveness should nevertheless be clarified. Free association and independence are members of the same family; but they are first cousins, not identical twins.

I propose therefore that the bill be amended to "flesh out" the free association and independence modalities within the "separate sovereignty" alternative, or as I prefer, the "Puerto Rican sovereignty" alternative.

If this proposal is accepted then it will not be necessary to include the territorial status quo as an option. Even the Popular Democratic Party rejects the option of an unincorporated territory subject to the power of Congress under the Territorial clause of the US Constitution. While we should all favor "inclusiveness", it would indeed be a perversion of that concept to include a colonial or territorial option that nobody favors.

Territorial Commonwealth was included because the bill was attacked for excluding a substantial segment of Puerto Rican public opinion. But once the free association modality has been reformulated in such a way as to address the legitimate concerns of its proponents, there would be no need for its inclusion, and the bill would once more guarantee a majority vote for one of the two paths leading to full self government.

3. This bill should at least reflect a sense of Congress regarding the truly critical questions which it would have to face and answer in the event of a statehood petition.

Congress should not convey the impression that a mere majority vote in the plebiscite is the only condition it would require in order to grant statehood. I am convinced that if this bill is perceived in Congress -rightly or wrongly- as an implicit commitment to grant statehood after a majority vote by the Puerto Rican electorate. it may never become law. The reason is simple. Such commitment would run contrary to legitimate political and economic concerns of those members of Congress who, in the House or in the Senate, are uninclined to accept Puerto Rico as a state or who question. the wisdom of such an implicit offer.

Crucial questions regarding statehood for Puerto Rico arise, which should be addressed in this bill:

 

  • Is it the sense of Congress that statehood for Puerto Rico would be possible unless English becomes the primary or common language of Puerto Ricans ?

 

  • Would statehood be a realistic option so lone as Puerto Rico's per capital Income remains -as it has for the past 50 years- one third that of the United States and one half that of your poorest state, considering the repercussions of that reality on the federal treasury?

 

  • Is statehood conceivable without a solid and overwhelming political consensus in its favor in Puerto Rico far beyond a mere majority?

 

  • Is Congress willing to face a Caribbean Quebec if a minority for separate sovereignty should become a majority in the next generation?

 

Needless to say, this Congress cannot anticipate the answers to these questions in a way that would bind a future Congress. The critical question, however, is a political one which only this Congress can answer: should Congress authorize a plebiscite with a statehood option, without first providing the people of Puerto Rico a clear sense as to what criteria it would use to evaluate a statehood petition?

 At a minimum, Congress should make clear that if the statehood alternative achieves a sufficient majority but Congress does not then act favorably on the petition within a reasonably short period of time then the statehood alternative should be deemed to have been rejected. Accordingly in order to achieve its primary objective. the bill should mandate that in such an eventuality the People of Puerto Rico should then choose between the remaining decolonizing alternatives, that is between independence and free association.

 4. Fairness and objectivity should be maintained regarding the status definitions as they might refer to the potential economic effects of the different alternatives. As regards this issue, the bill is unbalanced and unjust and should be amended.

 Congress has constitutional and international law obligations with Puerto Rico's decolonization, in addition to moral and political commitments after almost one hundred years of U.S. occupation. In this context, Congress should be explicit in its willingness to approve a smooth and fair transition towards independence, as well as regarding the creation of a reparations or development fund. Such a fund would indeed be a small price to pay in order to end the evergrowing dependence on the federal budget promoted by the status quo and which would certainly multiply with the two senators and seven representatives which statehood would entail. On previous occasions, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have demonstrated that such objectives can be attained.

 Free trade and economic cooperation are not the exclusive prerogative of statehood. On the contrary, mutually beneficial and common sense solutions are clearly available for independence in this age of globalization and regional economic arrangements. The bill should reflect these concepts in order to be fair and balanced.

 There are hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who are now inclined towards statehood only because they have been led to think that a choice for independence would lead to economic penalties imposed by the United States through a regime of tariffs and trade restrictions, On the other hand they have been led to contemplate a statehood panorama of an eternal cornucopia of federal welfare funds guaranteed by two senators and seven representatives. It is up to Congress to dispel these myths by stating its sense as to what its trade and assistance policies would be towards an independent Puerto Rico.

 5. It is of the utmost importance that Congress face the matter of US citizenship under the Puerto Rican sovereignty alternative in a clear and realistic manner. it should begin its analysis by separating myth from fact.

 I am firmly convinced that the principal value that the immense majority of Puerto Ricans attach to their US citizenship is the right to travel freely to and from the United States. This should come as no surprise.

 The importance of Puerto Ricans' free transit into the United States, however, cannot be underestimated. For almost one hundred years -even before Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917- free transit and free trade have been part of the US - PR relationship by virtue of US law and policy since 1900.

More than two million Puerto Ricans live in the United States either permanently or temporarily and there is hardly anyone in Puerto Rico who does not have a close relative who lives in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or other cities.

 It is within this historical context of free transit -existing before and after the imposition of US citizenship- that the majority of Puerto Ricans read with apprehension at the threat of losing that freedom to travel which they equate to US citizenship .

 As in the matter of trade and economic cooperation if this Congress expresses or implies that free transit is only possible under statehood, it will be promoting an artificial pro statehood majority that has nothing to do with the spirit of patriotic commitment to the United States which should be the real basis of a serious pro statehood sentiment As recently as this month the governor of Puerto Rico, in promoting this myth, insisted that regarding the plebiscite "the decision that must be made is whether we want to be American citizens or not. That is the basic decision."

 Loyalty to one's nation and freedom to travel to other nations are, as Americans well know, two different things. By separating the issue of free transit from the issue of citizenship you will have defused the artificial growth of the statehood movement.

 As far as we independentistas are concerned, we aspire exclusively to our own Puerto Rican citizenship in an independent Puerto Rico. But as regards those Puerto Ricans born before independence who want to retain their US citizenship after independence, they should be allowed to retain it. In any case, if they were not snowed to do so, the US courts would have the final word on the matter.

 As regards Puerto Ricans born after independence. Congress would be wise to allow for free transit arrangements between both countries I remind you that a very large percentage of the Puerto Rican nationality resides in the United States and that it was the US who, after the invasion of our nation, created and promoted free transit and that at present there is free transit between Puerto Rico and the US; so surely the United States would not be worse off under independence than at present. If the European Community countries have successfully entered into such free transit arrangements without a similar 99 years precedent , there is no reason why the United States should have any problem in reaching a similar arrangement with an independent Puerto Rico.

6. The bill should be amended to substantially reduce the time frame provided for the fun implementation of the different alternatives.

In this respect, since the status alternatives require, by their very nature different procedures and conditions for their implementation, the temptation of false symmetry should be avoided. Independence: for example, being an unalienable right of the Puerto Rican people, should and could come into effect in a very reduced period of time. Once independence has been proclaimed, a transition period involving economic and other matters would be implemented over an extended period of time.

 On the other hand, statehood not being a right but a privilege to be granted at the will of Congress, it would necessarily require a different time frame which should be as short as practically possible. We believe that the more than 10 years proposed in the bill should be drastically reduce. It would otherwise become a way of avoiding the difficult decisions that sooner or later Congress will have to face regarding statehood.

 7. The bill should guarantee that all the options have adequate and equal access to public funds in the Plebiscite campaign: that a reasonable limit on spending for advertising beyond that provided for by public funds be imposed so as not to create an unfair advantage for any option: and that government funds and agencies are not improperly utilized to favor any option.

 8. H.R. 856 should be amended as to who will have the right to vote in the plebiscite

 It should be obvious that if the plebiscite is not a general ejection to select public officials but a special election to advance the cause of self determination of the Puerto Rican People, only Puerto Ricans -and not merely residents of Puerto Rico- should have the right to vote. By Puerto Ricans I mean those born in Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican parentage who reside in Puerto Rico or who, though residing outside have the intention to return to live in Puerto Rico.

 As an exception those non Puerto Ricans who have lived 'in Puerto Rico for a substantial period of time and who intend to remain should also have the right to participate .

 To allow non Puerto Rican residents of Puerto Rico to vote, or to exclude non resident Puerto Ricans, will undoubtedly have distorting effects on the election results and can into question the legitimacy of the outcome. No objective observer would seriously dispute, for example, that the overwhelming majority of the non-Puerto Rican residents would vote for statehood, either because they are Americans residing in Puerto Rico or because, though originally from other countries, they became US citizens by choice.

 The anomalies of our colonial condition are such, however, that one may clearly anticipate constitutional arguments as to the exclusion of non-Puerto Rican residents, and practical arguments as to the inclusion of Puerto Rican non- residents can also be anticipated. But these constitutional and practical obstacles are certainly not insurmountable to a Congress acting pursuant to its plenary powers under the territorial clause.

 Even if this committee were unwilling, for whatever reason, to agree that the plebiscite franchise be designed in accordance with our proposal, this does not mean that the bill should not recognize the distorting effect that the electoral franchise proposed in the bill implies.

 Needless to say, an imperfect plebiscite is a better option than no plebiscite at ah, but this committee is by now advised that a revision of the bill's franchise provisions is both necessary and possible and that not to do so will weaken the reliability and legitimacy of the plebiscite results.

 From my long experience with previous processes relating to Puerto Rico's status, I have no doubt that as the legislative process evolves, the issues I have raised today before this Committee will emerge as crucial issues, either in the House or the Senate.

 If Congress addresses these issues we are convinced that fair and equitable legislation will finally emerge. We are willing to work with this Committee to draft the necessary specific amendments to meet the objectives we have referred to.

 Before concluding, I wish to set the historical record straight concerning the participation of the Puerto Rican Independence Party in this plebiscite process.

 We fully understand why the sponsors of the bill start from the premise that statehood would be a legitimate form of self government for Puerto Rico. After all, thirty six former territories have become states of the Union. In addition a large percentage of Puerto Ricans favor statehood and even international law admits integration, in certain circumstances, as a way out of colonialism.

 But the Puerto Rican Independence Party is convinced that integration to the United States as a state of the Union is not a valid solution to Puerto Rico's colonial problem.

 Puerto Rico is a distinct, mature, Spanish Speaking, Latin American, Caribbean nation. To argue that Puerto Rico is not a nation is as absurd as to argue that blacks in the US were not human beings before the abolition of slavery.

 For a nation such as Puerto Rico, statehood would be a dilution, if not an abdication, of our right to govern ourselves as Puerto Ricans, no matter how intensely we exercise our voting franchise. The problem of Puerto Rico is not a problem of the disenfranchisement of a minority or an issue of civil rights, as some people seem to believe. It is not a problem of individual rights: it is a problem of national rights: of the inalienable right of a nation. of a people to govern themselves.

 Even Puerto Rican statehooders postulate our right as a people to our distinct identity -"J╠baro" statehood, they call it- which in part accounts for their success at the polls. Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions proudly and forcefully proclaim and have even submitted for the Congressional Record that

Puerto Rico's language and culture are not negotiable under any status. As Gandhi once said, we do not "want [our] house to be walled in on ah sides and [our] windows to be stifled. [We] want all the cultures of ah lands to be blown about [our] house as freely as possible. But [we] refuse to be blown off our feet by any.

 You should be aware, therefore, that the primary loyalty of Puerto Ricans is to Puerto Rico, not to any other nation, and that regardless of what this Congress may resolve or believe, we Puerto Ricans are determined to preserve and develop our distinct national identity as a people.

 For the US to accept as a state of the Union a distinct Spanish Speaking, Latin American nationality with half the per capita income of the poorest state, would run counter to its national interests, particularly when a substantial consensus regarding statehood is a practical impossibility in the foreseeable future. Quebec and Ireland are but contemporary reminders of the dangers that inevitably ensue when nations have attempted to absorb other nations. Nations by definition cannot give up their inalienable right to self determination and independence that is, their right to secede.

 Independence, on the other hand, which is the ultimate empowerment, would endow Puerto Rico with the political, fiscal and commercial flexibility indispensable in this day and age to insert ourselves into the globalized economy, attract foreign capital, strengthen our own, and thus fully develop our economic potential.

 For Puerto Rico, independence would be the tool necessary to break the cycle of impotence and dependence which has become endemic in our colonial relationship and which would only turn more acute under statehood. This condition of dependency has constrained our economic development and undermined our dignity and self esteem. Independence, in contrast with commonwealth or statehood, would mean the beginning of the end of the ever increasing drain on the federal budget. Moreover, it would be a source of incalculable good will for Latin America and the Caribbean; an indispensable condition for the development of a forward-looking US policy towards the region for the next century based on equality and cooperation.

 We are thus convinced that when Congress finally works its will, when this process comes to its end, the United States government will come to the conclusion that the only true option for both of our countries is independence.

 But we are not there yet and it is thus necessary that the process work its way. Let us, therefore, move ahead with the process.

 The relationship between colonizer and colonized denies the essential equality of nations in the same way that the relation between master and slave denies the essential equality of human beings. It denigrates the colonized and it demeans the colonizer. For the honor and respect of both our nations let us bring it to an end.

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