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UNITED STATES SENATE
COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES
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
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
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"
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
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.
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.