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California Legislators Present Self-Determination Resolution to Puerto Rico Senate

October 9, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN - Two California legislators left San Juan today after a five-day visit to Puerto Rico. While on the island, California Senator Majority Leader Richard Polanco and his Senate colleague, Martha Escutia, presented a resolution to the Puerto Rico Senate, recently passed by the 20 member Latino Caucus of the California Senate. The resolution advocates U.S. Congressional action for a bill permitting the American citizens of this Caribbean island to vote on a permanent political status. In part, it states, " As we approach a new millennium, we recognize that the time has come for Puerto Rico to have the opportunity to express itself regarding its desire to attain full self-government."

In an address to the Puerto Rico Senate, coinciding with Hispanic Heritage Month, Senator Polanco told the assembly that "this resolution should be read as an act of solidarity between the Hispanic Community of California and the people of Puerto Rico." Quoting from the Resolution he said that "California's great history, including its ascension to statehood, is intertwined with our Hispanic heritage, " and that " the State of California has a significant Puerto Rican community and an ever-increasing Hispanic population," and that "we (Californians) recognize the many social, economic, and political contributions the 3.8 million United States citizens residing in Puerto Rico make to preserve and enhance this nation's democratic values."

Polanco later told reporters that the resolution was the Latino Caucus' response to the U.S. Congress' failure to provide a mechanism for the Puerto Rican people to choose a permanent political status. Since the U.S. gained possession of Puerto Rico at the end of the Spanish American War, the island has remained an Unincorporated Territory of the United States, subject to the will of the U.S. Congress. On March 4, 1998, the US House of Representative passed HR 856, providing language for three status options, Independence, US Statehood and the status quo Commonwealth arrangement. The US Senate, however, failed to take up the measure. A subsequent locally-sponsored referendum held on the island in December of 1998 showed statehood leading all status options by a wide margin, but none of the five ballot options received a majority of votes.

During their stay on the island, the Senators met with Puerto Rican government and private sector leaders. Governor Pedro Rossello welcomed the delegation and the discussion turned to Puerto Rico's public health care system, which Senator Escutia termed, "in many ways superior to that of California." In a meeting with Norman Maldonado, President of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and other educational officials, the Californians discussed the possibility of academic exchanges between students and faculty of UPR and institutions of higher learning in the "Golden State." At the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO) the Senators discussed business and trade opportunities between Puerto Rico and the nation's most populous state.

Before leaving San Juan, Senator Richard Polanco gave the Puerto Rico Herald an exclusive interview. An edited text of the interview follows.

HERALD: Senator Polanco, please give us an overview of trip to Puerto Rico.

SEN. POLANCO: Well, we had the privilege of meeting with the governor, we talked about his program on healthcare. A lot more progressive than California, so a credit to this governor, in that here they're getting close to everyone having health coverage. We also presented the governor with a resolution from the Latino Caucus supporting the issue of self-determination. This is a very, very important issue to Puerto Ricans, but it's also important to those who are not Puerto Ricans, who view this as a self-determination question, who view it as a civil rights issue. Also, we had the opportunity also to meet with the president of the University of Puerto Rico, Doctor Maldonado, a medical doctor. One of the reasons we're here is to see how we can begin to improve the relationships; in education, with cultural exchanges, and then to see how we can enhance business opportunities and economic development between California and Puerto Rico.

HERALD: You also met with your counterparts in the Puerto Rican Senate, did you not?

SEN. POLANCO: My good friend, Senator Charlie Rodriguez, President of the Puerto Rican Senate, was kind enough to introduce me and I made a presentation to the assembled Senators restating the importance of self-determination. I mean, 200,000 Puerto Ricans have fought for this great country of ours, and yet they are not able to vote for the most important office on earth, the presidency of the United States. That's wrong. It's not acceptable. In modern times, we will see, in the next several years I think a swelling of support from civil rights groups, from elected officials, from the professional associations, from veterans' groups who fought side by side with Puerto Ricans, to keep this country what it is, and make it a full democracy. And until the issue of self-determination in Puerto Rico is resolved, by the will of the people, true democracy in the purest form is not fully available to the Puerto Ricans here.

HERALD: In your remarks before the Senate, you placed a great deal of emphasis on the Hispanic community. Could you give us an overview of the Hispanic community in California?

SEN. POLANCO: What is taking place in California, and throughout the Southwest is a phenomenon. People who historically did not participate in the political process are now engaged. Since 1994 in California, 1.2 million Latinos were registered voters. In a four-year period of time, it grew to 2.2. The attacks on the immigrant population by politicians for political reasons, galvanized like never before, this community. There are 5.2 million legal permanent residents who are eligible to become naturalized citizens of this great country of ours. And we have exercised and implemented strategies and programs to fully integrate this population. Fully integrate them so that they can ultimately participate in true democracy by voting. That has propelled itself to a real shift in the political structure of California. Today, for the first time in this century, we now have a lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, who is of Mexican ancestry, who was our first Speaker. We followed with Antonio Villa Aregoz as our second Speaker. I serve as the Majority Leader, the second Mexican American to hold that position. And we see the importance of participating in the political process, because it is from there, from which the social and the public policy debate are carried out.

HERALD: How has this newly found political power translated into a political agenda?

SEN. POLANCO: It is not a radical agenda. It's an agenda that is about America; it's an American agenda, as we say, in the true sense, and that's we want decent jobs, we want safer neighborhoods, we want good schools, we want the opportunity to compete like anyone else, in higher education, and we really are there advocating that of what is the best. That of what makes American the great country that it is.

HERALD: How do Puerto Ricans fit within the Hispanic political dynamic?

SEN. POLANCO: From my vantage point, and from our caucus position in support of self-determination, there would be a tremendous presence, a tremendous change of representation in the halls of Congress if Puerto Rico was to become a state. We would see, in this era, two Hispanic U.S. Senators. We would then see the expansion of a congressional delegation of Hispanics by as many as five or six. That potends a tremendous opportunity to address those special issues that affect the Puerto Rican community. Much like what was done in California. This is an era where we should not allow, be it in California or Puerto Rico, the disenfranchisement of any population. And so, I would hope that the people of Puerto Rico really take seriously the tremendous advantage of being full partners in a democracy that can work for them, by them, for them, by giving themselves the opportunity to create that mechanism.

HERALD: Senator Polanco, if a majority of the US citizens of Puerto Rico decide to petition the US government for statehood, do you think that that petition would be respected by the US Congress and accepted by the American body politic?

SEN. POLANCO: Let me answer the question this way. The decision for statehood always will stay with the people of Puerto Rico. The decision and the question of process go beyond the Puerto Rican community. It is a process that is supposed to be fair and open. It is a process that is important because it is in that process that you begin to address the issues that matter to the Puerto Ricans.. How is it that the Puerto Ricans who are U.S. citizens, who have fought for this country, who have given so much to the betterment of this country, are not allowed to have a process? How un-American is that? That is wrong, for Congress not to move forward. Congress has a duty to bring forth a process by which those issues can be aired out and remedied. For it to do otherwise is a slap in the face, not just to the Puerto Rican community, but a slap in the face to the millions of Hispanics who understand that democracy cannot work in its true form if you disenfranchise.

HERALD: Senator Richard Palanco, we appreciate your being with us and sharing your thoughts about Puerto Rico and the Hispanic community, and the solidarity that you would like to establish between Puerto Ricans and Californians. Thank you very much.

SEN. POLANCO: Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it very much.

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