Statement of Congressman Carlos Romero-Barcelo
Hearing on HR 856
The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act
Committee on Resources
March 19, 1997
I would like to begin my remarks today by commending you, Mr., Chairman, for your initiative in scheduling this hearing on HR 856, The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, and for your commitment to achieving full self-government and ending the disenfranchisement of the 3.8 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.
I also want to thank our Ranking Minority Member, my good friend George Miller, for his efforts in helping provide a process in which Puerto Ricans will have the opportunity to decide freely, without ambiguity and decisively what the Island's political relationship with the United States should be. Your leadership on this issue has been instrumental in allowing us to reach the point where we are today.
Last, but not least, I want to publicly thank the nearly 80 Members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, who have co-sponsored this legislation Their support is certainly appreciated and needed.
Mr. Chairman and fellow Members it was almost 100 years ago that in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War.
In 1917, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens, a citizenship that we have cherished and valued ever since and a citizenship that we have defended with our lives and with our blood. Then, in 1952, the Island adopted a local Constitution and became a so-called Commonwealth of the United States, a purely cosmetic change that did not in any way, affect the Island's status as an unincorporated territory of the United States subject to the authority and powers of Congress under the territorial clause of the Constitution. In international terms, Puerto Rico remained a colony.
Prominent members of the Popular Party have recognized this fact. Even former Governor and Commonwealth architect, Luis Munoz Marin, testified at a Congressional hearing on March 4, 1950 that the proposed changes to the Island's status "did not change the fundamental conditions of Puerto Rico as non-incorporation and only permitted Puerto Rico to develop its own self-government. Jose Trias Monge, a former Chief Judge of the Supreme Court and member of Puerto Rico's Constitutional Assembly acknowledged in his book Historia Constitucional de Puerto Rico that even after 1952, Puerto Rico clearly continued suffering a colonial status and wrote that "Puerto Ricans have the distinction of having the longest history of colonialism in the whole world. What a sad distinction!"
There is a famous Chinese proverb that says that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. But to reach his or her destination, a traveler must also be headed in the right direction. HR 856 is not only the most important step that we have taken yet in this journey to resolve the issue of disenfranchisement of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico but it is also a step that leads us in the right direction.
HR 856 is also the most important and comprehensive measure affecting self-determination of a U.S. territory to come before the House since the Alaska and Hawaii admission acts of the late 1950's.
I have devoted most of my adult life to this struggle and to leading my people in this long and treacherous journey. As former Major of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, as Governor and now member of Congress, I have heard my people's voices, and have shared their dreams and aspirations.
These voices, questions and aspirations resonate loudly in the Island, although, to most Americans living in the continental United States, they may seem as distant echoes reflecting the deep unease and disenchantment with our current relationship.
College students in Puerto Rico ask me if our present status will at some time in the future deny them equal treatment in Federal education programs that they desperately need to succeed in today's competitive world. Young couples ask me why they have to move to the states in order to search for opportunities that are not available in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican veterans who have served the United States gallantly in all of me nation's wars and conflicts in this century ask me why they cannot vote for the President that, as Commander in Chief may tomorrow also send their sons and daughters to fight and die in times of war. The elderly ask me why their health benefits and other support programs are less than if they resided in New York, Illinois, California, Florida, or any other state of the Union. I have heard the voice of a grandmother wondering why her son, who died in Vietnam, gave his life for a country that denies her and her grandchildren the right to participate on equal terms.
The answer to these questions is clear. We are unequals because we are not partners. We are unequals because we are submerged in a colonial relationship in which our economic, social and political affairs are controlled, to a large degree, by a government in which we have no voting influence and in which we do not participate We are unequals because we cannot vote for the President of the nation of which we are citizens and because we do not have a proportional and voting representation in the Congress that determines the rules under which we conduct our daily lives and the rules that influence and determine our future.
Mr., Chairman, this great nation of ours, the example and inspiration of democracies throughout the world, cannot continue to uphold a policy that denies political participation and disenfranchises 3.8 million of its own citizens. We cannot continue to hide our heads in the sand like ostriches and pretend that nothing is happening. The lives and well-being of 3.8 million U.S. citizens is at stake here; their dignity and democratic heritage is the issue.
I am encouraged by the fact that we have been able to gather so much bipartisan support for this legislation in so little time As a matter of fact, Senators Bob Graham and Larry Craig will introduce a similar version of this bill later today, and the initial support in the Senate seems to be as strong and bipartisan as here in the House.
Mr., Chairman we are more than halfway through the 1990's, a decade that the United Nations General Assembly declared to be the international decade for the eradication of colonialism, Next year, Puerto Rico will commemorate its 100th year as a U.S. colony. Should we celebrate or should we mourn? Will we see a silver lining in the sky by 1998, or will we be seeing more of the same?
The United States cannot seek to promote, and at times enforce, democracy elsewhere in the world while it relegates 3.8 million of its own citizens to an indefinite second class status -- disenfranchised, discriminated against and unable to exercise the most basic right in a democracy: the right to vote and participate in its government. To ignore the situation of Puerto Rico is to betray the spirit of our democratic values and system.
Mr., Chairman, I feel honored at having the opportunity to find myself in the center of this historic process. Once again I want to thank you for your leadership and vision in filing this bill and for holding this hearing, and look forward to me testimony of our distinguished panelists