Para ver este documento en español, oprima aquí.


Hearing to Consider the Results of the December 1998 Plebiscite on Puerto Rico

May 6, 1999

Written Statement of
Miriam J. Ramirez de Ferrer, MD

Puerto Ricans in Civic Action, President
Box 3225, Mayaguez, PR 00681
(787) 834-0726, (787)306-1725

I would like to thank Chairman Murkowski and the members of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for allowing me to include my thoughts on Puerto Rico's December plebiscite in the permanent hearing record.

I present my statement on behalf of the members of Puerto Ricans in Civic Action, a non-profit, non-partisan civic organization I founded in 1984. For over a decade, we have worked toward a congressionally sanctioned self-determination process for Puerto Rico and delivered 350,000 individually signed petitions for statehood to the Capitol.

While I am thankful for the opportunity to submit my testimony, I must also express some concern that only leaders of Puerto Rico's three leading political parties were invited as witnesses before the committee. The same fractious party system that serves to confuse and prolong the island's status debate can not be expected to give clarity to the muddled results of our most recent referendum. While no one ever expected a quick and easy resolution to what is already a century-old debate, perhaps nothing has impeded the island's quest for self-determination more than local political maneuverings and the consequent manipulation of the debate and the real issues at hand.

The confusion wrought by local party politics has led to heated debate in previous House and Senate hearings over who holds the burden of finally resolving Puerto Rico's century-old status dilemma. Many members have expressed frustration that the people of Puerto Rico are continually urging Congress to act on the issue when they believe that the initial responsibility should rest with the residents of Puerto Rico themselves.

Puerto Rico's 3.8 million U.S. citizens have taken that responsibility seriously. In fact, last session's self-determination legislation (H.R. 856/S. 472) was introduced not only due to the petitions but as reaction to the 1993 island-sanctioned status referendum. Puerto Rico did take the first step with this referendum, but when island leaders presented the results to Congress, the relevant subcommittees of the House Resources and International Relations Committees found the status options as defined to be constitutionally unacceptable.

The definition the committees found objectionable was that of commonwealth. The pro-commonwealth (PDP) definition was far from a reflection of the status quo. It described a bilateral pact between the U.S. and Puerto Rico that provided permanent, constitutionally guaranteed U.S. citizenship, full funding in Federal programs, continued exemption from Federal income taxes, the ability to make treaties with foreign nations, veto power over Federal laws and more. In short, it is the same "pie in the sky" formula which the PDP campaigned on leading up to the December plebiscite.

The PDP was able to once again confuse the issue in the absence of final Senate action on S. 472 last year. Despite the fact that the measure passed in the House, and that the Puerto Rico legislature mirrored the House definition of commonwealth in the December referendum ballot, the PDP was able to convince the voters that somehow ­ under commonwealth ­ the people of Puerto Rico could achieve more. In the absence of definitive action and clarification of the status options by Congress, what was to prevent the voters from clinging to the notion that they could have the best of statehood, separate sovereignty and commonwealth ­ all with very few responsibilities?

All party rhetoric aside, the voters clearly rejected the status quo in December. Puerto Rico's voters had the opportunity to vote for maintaining a relationship with the U.S. as a territory subject to the Territorial Clause of the Constitution, in which U.S. citizenship is statutory (as provided under the Jones Act). I challenge any member of this committee to tell me that the tenets of this definition are not consistent with the foundation of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship. The ballot option ­ a clear reflection of the status quo ­ mustered .01% of the vote. In an island-wide vote with over 70% turnout, it is safe to say that the status quo no longer has any popular support.

Although some would like us to believe otherwise, the "none of the above" vote can not be accepted as an endorsement of the status quo when the reality of the current commonwealth arrangement was clearly presented on the ballot and soundly rejected. For those who may counter that the commonwealth ballot definition was somehow skewed in the December vote, I ask that you read it. My interpretation of it was taken directly from the text. It is nothing more than a concise, straightforward definition of the island's territorial status.

Further, for any political party to claim ownership of a "none of the above" column is simply ludicrous. It stands for nothing. It must be understood that almost everyone in Puerto Rico votes in an island-wide election. This is one way in which we truly do differ from our counterparts on the mainland. As such, everyone wants to vote for something. Those waging protest votes, those truly confused by a ballot with five status options, and those undecided voters would also be lumped in to this "catch-all" category.

Of the viable status options, statehood did garner the most support with 46.5%. However, I do not pretend to expect that such a figure would result in a petition for statehood. I recognize that this plebiscite was only another stop on our long road to true self-determination. What I do expect is that the confused results of yet another flawed island-run plebiscite will make it clear to our friends in both chambers that true self-determination will only exist if Congress officially sets the parameters for each viable status option. As long as the local political rhetoric on the island goes unchecked, our efforts to secure a free and fair process are in vein.

As much as it is a worthwhile exercise to examine the results of the December referendum, it is equally important to discuss why the legislature and political parties of Puerto Rico were left to their own devices once again in conducting this plebiscite.

It would be naïve not to recognize that any legislation regarding Puerto Rico's status is bound to be controversial. Those both in and out of Congress who waged a tireless effort to kill the Puerto Rico status bill last session justified their opposition by pointing to the potential dangers and pitfalls of a Puerto Rican state. Addressing the basic question of whether nearly 4 million disenfranchised U.S. citizens deserve a free and fair self-determination process did not seem to be a concern.

The issue of cost always enters the discussion when considering the possibility that the island might eventually opt for statehood. Many argue against bringing in a state that would replace Mississippi as the poorest in the union. While I would first argue that this should be discussed when considering a Puerto Rico statehood petition and not as a tool to deny American citizens the right to self-determination, I find it odd that current costs are seldom discussed (i.e. the costs of commonwealth). Self-determination opponents are so focused on the idea of "bringing us in" as if we are a separate nation, that they fail to recognize that Puerto Rico is "in" ­ that we have been part of the United States for over a century. In fact, we are so much a part of this nation today that current Federal outlays to Puerto Rico average $10 billion annually.

The fact that we are pouring billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars annually into an economy that many in Congress argue would be too much of a burden to fully bring into the system seems to be an inappropriate and perhaps irresponsible use of funds. If Puerto Rico's economy is that unattractive and burdensome, why not do something to help the situation rather than continuing to throw money at it?

In debating the status issue, no one ever seems to ask why the Puerto Rican economy is so far behind that of the states or how to begin to ameliorate the island's economic problems ­ instead, a struggling economy is used as a tool to block self-determination. For those who have taken the time to study Puerto Rico's economy, the answers are fairly clear. The current commonwealth system, which initially sparked growth in the 1950's, has outlived its usefulness. The investment climate in Puerto Rico suffers as a result of the island's continued political uncertainty. This is not only true of capital coming into Puerto Rico, but we have a serious problem with capital flight as those on the island with money to invest seek more stable markets on the mainland and internationally.

In addition to capital flight, the island faces the reality of the flight of our younger, college-educated classes. In my own personal experience, I have lost my four children because of the constraints of the island's economy. Two of my children are engineers and have pursued careers on the mainland, and my other two children are pursuing their higher education outside of Puerto Rico. My family is not the exception. Families are being fractured daily as a result of the poor job market on the island.

While every state's economy has its problems, clearly the most detrimental of Puerto Rico's economic woes are symptoms of an antiquated and limiting political system that is allowed to exist in perpetuity under the U.S. flag. The Commonwealth sanctioned by this Congress is serving neither the people of Puerto Rico nor this government. We suffer as a result of the unstable investment climate and burdensome tax structure and the U.S. Treasury and every American taxpayer suffers as billions of Federal dollars flow into a broken economic system with no end in sight. Continued Congressional inaction only perpetuates this black hole of U.S. tax dollars.

What is even more troubling to me than seeing the economic effects of commonwealth being used to justify this status stalemate is to see how this debate is being used by anti-Hispanic xenophobes to breed intolerance. In newspapers throughout the country, in direct mail pieces and on web-sites, there is a vast yet organized movement to stop Puerto Rico's self-determination process. Puerto Ricans are portrayed as culturally and ethnically "different" than mainland Americans and we are therefore seen as a serious threat to American culture should we ever become a state. Despite the fact that English and Spanish remain the island's two official languages, the language issue is often used to fuel the fire; but the hatred promoted by these forces runs deeper than language. (See enclosed example of such mailings)

Puerto Rican statehood is presented as a poison to the American cultural fabric. The propaganda is driven by ethnic and racial intolerance and is often chilling to read. I need not remind anyone of the evils and consequences of perpetuating racial and ethnic hatreds, but when I watched in horror the recent coverage of the massacre at Columbine High School, I could not help but think that we are losing our children in our own rhetoric. The children are listening. Whether the propaganda is targeted at Puerto Ricans or African Americans or Jews or any other group, the message is the same: those who are different are a threat to you. In Columbine, such perverted thinking led to the brutal murder of twelve children and one teacher.

We can continue to argue about whether it is the effect of video games, violent movies or the Internet that is sending these messages to our children. However, when intolerance is displayed as clearly as it has been regarding the 3.8 million U.S. citizens (albeit Hispanic citizens) of Puerto Rico in mainstream media as well as the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, the time has come to say enough is enough.

Regardless of where the self-determination debate is headed, it is my hope that it will focus on the merits of the issue ­ whether or not nearly 4 million Americans can finally determine their political destiny fairly ­ rather than on the distortions of island politics or malicious ethnic stereotypes.

While much focus was placed on passing last session's self-determination bills (H.R. 856/S. 472) to coincide with the centennial of the U.S. acquisition of Puerto Rico from Spain, I hope that Congress will not make the mistake of abandoning this issue before achieving a final resolution. There is the impression both in Puerto Rico and among the mainland press that Puerto Rico had its day before Congress and failed to make a compelling case for a congressionally sanctioned self-determination process. Whatever the next steps may be, I am confident that members of this committee realize that commonwealth was never intended to be a permanent solution for Puerto Rico. Someday soon the economic and political costs of commonwealth will make this issue as much a priority for Congress as it is for 3.8 million of its citizens in Puerto Rico.

In fact, that time may come sooner than many anticipated. The tragic death of a 35-year-old civilian security guard in Vieques recently could permanently impact the tone and pace of the status debate. David Sanes Rodriguez was killed on April 19, when a U.S. Marine F/A-18 pilot missed his target by more than three miles during a training exercise. The Puerto Rican island of Vieques ­ with a civilian population of 9500 ­ comprises a portion of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility and is known as a top spot for training U.S. and allied forces in real combat exercises using live ammunition. It is the largest area in the hemisphere for U.S. military exercises with live ammunition and the only place where bombing occurs near a significant civilian population. The Navy owns 22,000 of the island's 33,000 acres.

While the people of Vieques have long been concerned for the safety of their homes and families in light of the level of military activity taking place on the small island, concern has turned into outrage ­ outrage that is no longer confined to Vieques. While island residents are coping with this tragic death, they have been plagued by the question of how this could happen. No state in the union would tolerate such intense, high-level military training so dangerously close to a civilian population.

Why, then, is it happening in Puerto Rico? First and foremost, we have no voice on the Federal level, and this tragedy is allowing our residents to see first hand what a serious problem that is. Secondly, many in the military would argue that the strategic location and geography of the region makes Vieques an ideal training ground for live ammunition training ­ an exercise which I seriously doubt the U.S. Armed Forces will abandon. In other words, Uncle Sam needs us. Uncle Sam also needed the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico in every American conflict since World War I. We in Puerto Rico have not shied away from the obligations that the American flag flying over our island carries with it. What we can not understand is why after 100 years of U.S. rule we are not afforded the same respect as every other U.S. citizen.

It has been reported that the F/A-18 pilot was training for an undisclosed assignment in September. I could not help but wonder if he would be flying over Yugoslavia to help secure the freedom and liberty of the displaced Kosovars. The United States has nobly and justly defended its principles overseas and taken on the enormous responsibility of bringing stability and democracy to troubled regions across the globe.

Closer to home, the tide is turning in Puerto Rico. We have served this nation valiantly for over a century, and cherish our U.S. citizenship. All we ask is for our government to bring the same level of commitment to democratic ideals that we uphold around the world to our own shores.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback