Mr. Chairman and Member of this Committee, my name is Miriam J. Ramirez de Ferrer and I appear before you today as a representative of Puerto Ricans in Civic Action, a grassroots organization that delivered 350, 000 individually signed petitions to Congress, seeking equal rights for the United States citizens of Puerto Rico through the admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st State of the Union.
We meet on this historic occasion, merely 11 days from the 100th Anniversary of the United States acquisition of Puerto Rico, July 25, 1898. It is, therefore, altogether fitting that the work of this Committee, the full Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives is focused on raising the final act of the United States' political and economic development of the territory of Puerto Rico.
This year marks the one hundred years' anniversary of Puerto Rico as a part of the United States. It is a very appropriate time for Congress to finally take action. For Puerto Rico, these hundred years represent both a period of great accomplishments and satisfaction as well as deep disappointment
We are proud and honored to be a part of the world's greatest democracy and pleased with the role that we have played during almost half of America's history in the Nation's Armed Forces, and in our nation's political, social, and cultural life. We are at the same time frustrated, that to date, our own government has yet to ask whether we might choose to participate as equals in America's political life.
The United States embraced Puerto Rico almost a century ago, delivering its Constitution and precious citizenship to an economically and politically disadvantaged island. Since then our people, the 3.8 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, have prospered as never before and have returned their thanks many times over by defending our common flag against foreign tyrannies.
But our journey to full equality under the US constitution is incomplete. Our citizenship, unlike our stateside counterparts, does not carry with it voting representation is this body or in the House, nor does it entitle us to participate equally in the election of the President.
These inequities, tied to Puerto Rico's impermanent political status, have similarly prevented us from participating fully in the American dream. Incomplete American citizenship has carried with it incomplete economic opportunity and achievement. How else to explain that after 100 years in the American fold our per capita income is one-third the National average?
Without full rights of American citizenship we can neither be fully self-governing, nor full participants in the American economic miracle.
You can change all this. The Legislation you are considering today, H.R. 856 and S.472 is critically important both in Puerto Rico and the United States at large. For Puerto Rico it represents the first real opportunity to settle the divisive status debate that dominates our political life. For the Nation, it represents an appropriate approach, consistent with American law and traditions, to begin a process that will result in the end of American colonialism.
Both S. 472 and H.R. 856 provide the mechanisms for Puerto Rico to finally attain political and economic parity with free peoples everywhere. They contain elements that are critical to accomplishing these results. First, both provide for a Congressionally sanctioned referendum, and second both clearly define the available status options. Under both bills we can achieve these treasured ends, as either the fifty-first state of the Union or as an independent Nation.
In setting forth these objectives, both bills recognize the bedrock importance of providing starting points for this journey. A journey that once undertaken can not be aborted.
These starting points are three in number:
Puerto Rico has continuously since 1898 remained a territory of the United States under the constitution's territorial clause,
U.S. citizenship Conferred by statute on Puerto Ricans in 1917 is not constitutionally protected, and
The process to full self-government must continue until such time as the people of Puerto Rico choose a permanent Status: independence or statehood.
Some of the Members of this Committee, as well as other Senators not here today, have questioned why Congress should be involved in this process; they also ask why doesn't Puerto Rico take the first step and then come for our help afterwards? The answer is quite simple - Puerto Rico has already taken the first step.
The process that is now underway in Washington commenced as a result of the petition our legislature made in 1997 requesting Congress to assist the American citizens of Puerto Rico to hold a self-determination referendum, In effect, Puerto Rico has had a free and open democratic debate on whether to ask Congress to move the process forward.
the fact that these hearings are being held in this chamber is proof positive that the territorial clause is applicable to Puerto Rico, as is Congress' plenary power over the island. Whatever others may say or allege, our presence here and the Congress' legislative initiatives regarding the Island's future political status incontrovertibly are a responsibility of Congress and define our current Political status: a U.S. territory.
Despite assertions to the contrary, on the part of so called "commonwealth" supporters; Puerto Rico is a territory, subject to regulation by the Congress. As a result, we can go no further on our own. It is now appropriate, with our legislature having taken the first step, for Congress to participate in the self-determination process.
Secondly, the United States' citizenship that 95 percent of our islanders hold dear is by definition and origin revocable by statute as to current residents who might become part of a sovereign Puerto Rico and the future generations of offspring born in such a new nation.
Although a large number of territories petitioned for a change in status without holding referenda, this approach seems aptly suited for Puerto Rico. In fact, over the past one hundred years, the citizens of Puerto Rico have established a rich tradition of resolving issues in this manner, and we are highly civic minded. It is common for seventy five percent or more of our Puerto Rican-American citizens to participate in elections.
In this case, however, we are in need of Congress' assistance to provide a clear understanding of what is available, and what is not, to the voters. Time and again the proponents of "commonwealth" have misled our voters into believing the United States has or will create an ideal relationship with us, in which we would reap all of the benefits of being a part of this great nation, with none of the obligations and responsibilities.
As others have testified before this committee and during the House consideration of the "Young" Bill, in 1993 the "commonwealth" supporters told the voters, that retention of the current status would provide the American citizens of Puerto Rico with U.S. permanent and unalterable union with the Nation, permanent citizenship rights, permanent freedoms from federal taxation, the right to veto federal laws as they apply to Puerto Rico and separate sovereign national identity and guarantees federal welfare benefits and economic and fiscal development programs.
Moreover, as a result of an interpretation of the relationship that is not supported be Federal Law, "commonwealth" supporters have also told the American citizens of Puerto Rico that our relationship with the United States is a "compact" which cannot be modified without our consent.
Mr. Chairman, Congress has an obligation to set the record straight and provide clear and honest guidance to the four million Americans in Puerto Rico regarding our current status. In the long run, no interests are served by the confusion that exists today.
These non-negotiable tenets of our present status must be the starting points under which the ultimate decision regarding our political future can be decided. Their legislative declaration provides the clarity, precision and legitimacy for the residents of Puerto Rico to choose a future that is legal, constitutional and permanent.
Territorial status, statutory citizenship, permanent status: making the choices clear for Puerto Rico. Statehood or separate sovereignty. Your legislation has crystallized our choices and dictated the impossibility of any legitimate middle ground that would maintain the status quo outside the constitution while, conversely, providing constitutionally guaranteed statutory citizenship.
Over the years, my grassroots organization has delivered hundreds of thousands of petitions to Congress from individual citizens in Puerto Rico asking for a process that would lead to a resolution of our status debate. To us there is no more important issue than this; it governs how we live today, and more importantly, it determines our future and those of our children and grandchildren.
In the forthcoming plebiscite that these bills call for we will know exactly where we are today and where we can go tomorrow, to finally achieve full self-government. No longer will empty promises and unattainable objectives poison the democratic aspirations of Puerto Rico's voters.Just as these bills will provide the framework for our status deliberations and decisions, they will also offer the stateside American People the first real opportunity to 'resolve' the Puerto Rican dilemma; if not a colony then a benign protectorate that does little to burnish America's self-determination agenda overseas, Puerto Rico's ascension to independence or statehood will fulfill the Founding Fathers' dream of an empire-less nation, a beacon to the world's peoples striving for political autonomy.
Passage to independence or statehood will also initiate an immediate reduction in the $13 billion annual U.S. taxpayer subsidy that goes to maintain the status quo, eventually creating a self-sufficient Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, rightfully, will pay its own way or go its own way: an informed choice you will have given us.
It is my view, and that of my supporters, that both bills before this Committee provide acceptable definitions of the status options. Moreover, both bills provide a role for Congress in the process that is consistent with the role Congress has taken in self-determination efforts of other territories.
We are very pleased, Mr. Chairman, that you have held four hearings in such a short period of time. With today's legislative hearing, the record developed in the House debate and the countless studies and analysis that have been prepared by the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Research Service, and a variety of private organizations, the Senate has before it more information about Puerto Rico than it would likely had about most other territories when they contemplated the issue of self determination.
This process has, quite frankly, been frustrating in the past. Despite the endorsement of every Republican President since Eisenhower, for self-determination, despite the support in the Republican Party Platform since 1940, and despite numerous efforts to move this issue forward in previous Congress, Puerto Rico has always come away without final action. As you well know, often one House begins the process only to find that the other chooses not to act.
You have heard much and you will hear even more from those who oppose Puerto Rico self-determination, in general or these bills, in particular, either from the island or from the mainland. But this opposition is either political, arising from a desire for political self-preservation, or motivated by fear and ignorance.
I know from history, that Alaskans felt the same sense of frustration. During the late 1940's and early 1950', it appeared that Congress could not come together on legislation moving Alaska's bid for permanent status forward. Moreover, arguments were advanced by some opponents of Alaska similar to those that have been raised against Puerto Rico in this Congress. Specifically, it was said that Alaska would not survive economically, that it was too distant from the rest of the Nation, and that a large percentage of its population did not share in America's cultural and social life.
We take some comfort in our frustration in realizing that many of the criticism that are made about our self determination efforts were leveled at other territories and Alaska in not alone in that regard. Some said that California was too barren and empty to survive as a state; others complained that Ohio should not join the Union because a significant percentage of its citizens spoke German, rather than English, America's common language.
Had these concerns prevailed, there never would have been an American Century, nor would the world be entering the 21st Century with a dedication to democracy and freedom.
Finally, repeated referenda at appropriate intervals must be continuously held until a permanent political status is attained. The People of Puerto Rico and American taxpayers can no longer afford, politically or economically, to maintain a territory that disenfranchises its' citizens, deprives them of economic opportunity, and has already cost the U.S. treasury over $150 billion since commonwealth's founding in 1952.
The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have too long been denied the rights and opportunities all other Americans take for granted to further be denied by this Congress, exercising its constitutional powers over their daily lives, the power to achieve full self-government through the free exercise of self-determination.
The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have too long embraced the principles of the U.S. Constitution, daily putting them into practice for 100 years, to have our loyalty and fitness as Americans challenged just as their dreams of self-determination are within reach.
I trust that in the end, when the sound and fury has died down, you will cast your votes for equality and opportunity, enlightened as you are, the bearers of the Founding Father's principles and the safe keepers of our Constitution. Thank you.
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