(House of Representatives - March 11, 1997)

[Page: H814]

The SPEAKER pro tempore. Under the Speaker's announced policy of January 21, 1997 the gentleman from Puerto Rico [Mr. Romero-Barceló] is recognized during morning hour debates for 5 minutes.

Mr. ROMERO-BARCELO. Mr. Speaker, Wednesday, February 26 was a historic day. It was a historic day for the 3.8 million United States citizens of Puerto Rico and for our Nation as a whole.

On Wednesday, February 26, a group of more than 75 Members of Congress of both parties introduced H.R . 856, the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act. It marked what I hope will be the beginning of the end of Puerto Rico's long journey toward enfranchisement and full self-government.

It was almost 100 years ago, in 1898, that Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War.

In 1917 Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens, a citizenship that we have cherished and valued ever since and defended with our blood. In 1952 the island became a so-called Commonwealth of the United States, a change that did not affect the island's status as an unincorporated territory of the United States subject to the jurisdiction of Congress.

But if the Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step is true, then the actions to finally decolonize and end the disenfranchisement of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico is merely the first step.

H.R. 856 is undoubtedly the most important step that we have taken in this journey to resolve the issue of political and economic inequality that has infused the people of Puerto Rico for the last 100 years.

I have devoted most of my adult life to this struggle and to leading my people in this long and treacherous journey. As former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, as former Governor and now a 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 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 the Nation's wars and conflicts in this century ask me why they cannot vote for the President that as Commander in Chief may 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 this question is clear. We are unequals because we are not partners.

[Page: H815]
[TIME: 1245]

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 of and because we do not have a proportional and voting representation in the Congress that determines our rules of conduct and our future.

Mr. Speaker, this great Nation of ours, the example and inspiration of democracies throughout the world, the inspiration to the Chinese that revolted in Tiananmen, the inspiration of the revolt, the Hasidic Revolt in Poland, the inspiration of the unification of Germany, the inspiration of many other countries throughout the world, the inspiration of the peaceful revolt in Russia, cannot continue to uphold the 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. We are talking about the lives, the well-being, and the voting rights of 3.8 million U.S. citizens. We are not talking about illegal immigrants or legal residents. We are talking about U.S. citizens.

I am encouraged by the fact that we have been able to gather so much bipartisan support for this legislation in so little time. A similar version of this bill will be introduced in the Senate within the next weeks, and the support there seems to be as strong and as bipartisan as it is here in the House.

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 United States colony. Should we celebrate or should we mourn? Will we see a silver lining in the sky by 1998 or will we see more of the same?

Our Nation cannot seek to promote and at times enforce democracy elsewhere in the world while it relegates 3.8 million of its own citizens to 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.

Mr. Speaker, to ignore the situation of Puerto Rico is to betray the spirit of our democratic values and traditions.

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