STATEMENT OF THE HONORABLE JOSE E. SERRANO
BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON RESOURCES
MARCH 19, 1997
HEARING OF H.R. 856,
"UNITED STATES-PUERTO RICO POLITICAL STATUS ACT
TO PROVIDE A PROCESS LEADING
TO FULL SELF-GOVERNMENT FOR PUERTO RICO
Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the committee and fellow Puerto Ricans who will later address this Committee:
I want to commend Chairman Don Young, and Ranking Member George Miller and all the members of this Committee for the bipartisan effort to develop and consider this important legislation. Today is a hopeful day in the history of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Today we once again begin in this House the formal proceedings to establish a process leading to full self-government for Puerto Rico.
Thank you for considering an issue that is of critical importance. As one of the original cosponsors of this bill, I come before you today to speak in support of legislation that is very important to me both as a Puerto Rican, and as a citizen of this Nation. This Act provides to the Puerto Rican people a right that we as Americans cherish dearly and seek to share with peoples around the word -the fundamental right of self-determination.
Ever since Puerto Rico became a part of the United States after the Spanish American War in 1898, the Puerto Rican people have had a dual identity -they are an island nationality in the Caribbean, and a component of the American nation. Although we have been in this relationship for 99 years, the fact remains that Puerto Ricans did not choose to become part of the United States. For better or worse, the incorporation of Puerto Rico in the United States was unilaterally imposed.
The people of Puerto Rico are citizens of this Nation by birth, and have fought and died in all the American wars of this century, from World War I to Operation Desert Storm. If these brave young men and women are important enough to serve our national interest, they surely are important enough to demand and receive the respect of this Congress in their pursuit of political self-determination.
Out of self-respect, and out of respect for our cherished democratic principles, we must recognize the right of the people of Puerto Rico for self-determination. Otherwise the basic tenets of our Nation have lost all real meaning.
Today Puerto Rico is a colony. This means that we accord to Puerto Rico a citizenship with fewer attributes than that of other Americans. In addition, a colonial status lacks the ability to deal freely with other nations and to exercise full sovereignty, A quick study of this makes it clear that the Puerto Rican people are second class citizens. If I were to move tomorrow to the island, I would lose my right to vote in the election of the President of the United States, two U.S. senators and a voting Member of Congress. On the other hand, the government of Puerto Rico has no autonomy on international trade and immigration laws, and cannot refuse to go to war in the event the United States declares it. In other words, we are neither a full partner in the American nation, or an independent sovereign state. So, there is no doubt in my mind that Puerto Rico is a colony, even though some confusion exists, internationally and in Puerto Rico, about the official relationship of the United States with Puerto Rico.
Since 1898 the Puerto Rican people have had three opportunities to express their opinion as to what sort of relationship should exist between Puerto Rico and the United States.
In 1952 the people of Puerto Rico were invited either to enter into a Commonwealth relationship with the United States or to retain their then current status. In this instance, the Puerto Rican people "chose" what was offered to them. Independence and statehood were not options.
In 1967 a plebiscite was held in Puerto Rico on three political status alternatives: independence, statehood and a continuation of commonwealth status. Unfortunately, the plebiscite legislation was considered unfair by a substantial percentage of the electorate. After a contentious plebiscite marred by a substantial boycott on the part of proponents of independence and statehood, the Commonwealth options prevailed.
In 1993, the Government of Puerto Rico conducted a plebiscite initiated under local law on Puerto Rico's political status. In it, NONE of the three status propositions received a majority of the votes cast. However, results showed that almost EVERYONE WANTED TO CHANGE the existing status.
The final tally of the plebiscite results reveals that out of nearly two million registered voters, 1 .7 million, (73.5%) of them participated. The results were 826,326 votes for a commonwealth (48.6%) 788,296 for statehood (46.3%), and 75,620 for independence (4.4%).
Unfortunately and shamefully, up to now we have not abided by the right to self-determination for the People of Puerto Rico. Although we have deplored colonialism and paternalism by other nations, we continue to practice it ourselves in our treatment of Puerto Rico. I can only hope that with this legislation we will finally end colonialism in Puerto Rico.
The Puerto Rican people are anxious for this opportunity to freely, fairly and collectively determine the political status of their island. And if I may say so, Mr. Chairman, there could not be a more appropriate time for this vital democratic exercise of self-determination than right now, going into the millennium.
Section 4, paragraph (a) of this bill the "United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act," provides, and I quote, "A referendum on Puerto Rico's political status shall be held not later than December 31, 1998"
This commitment is good not only for the people of Puerto Rico, but for the credibility of American democracy in this era of stunning changes. As we in the United States strive to encourage and foster these developments around the world, it is essential that we hold true to our principles at home and provide the people of Puerto Rico the opportunity to exercise full self-determination and decide, a final political status of our island.
I would like to express my deep satisfaction with the fact that we are holding this hearing today. I believe that there is, in sum, one great Puerto Rican community. It encompasses those who reside on the island, and those who live in the United States. I also believe that there is no question about the effect our status has on those Puerto Ricans who reside on the fifty states, in terms of their own well being, as well as in terms of their future prospects for a return to the island. Moreover, the influence Puerto Ricans in the fifty states can wield, no doubt, will be an important factor in moving the plebiscite process forward in Congress.
Therefore, in due time I will propose an amendment to H.R. 856 that will make any person that was born in Puerto Rico and is not residing on the island of Puerto Rico, eligible to vote in the 1998 referendum.
As you all know, since I was elected to Congress in March of 1990, I have been advocating for this nonresident vote because I am convinced that the right of a people to determine its political status is so fundamental that Congress needs to give all Puerto Ricans the opportunity to voice their opinions on the issue. Just because a Puerto Rican leaves his or her homeland to go to the U.S. mainland for economic or educational reasons should not disqualify them to vote in the referendum. While former Puerto Rican residents, in general are not allowed to vote in local elections, the issue of self-determination is a unique and important franchise that warrants broader voter eligibility. Unlike general elections which are purely related to local issues a plebiscite to determine the final political status of a country will undoubtedly affect both Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico and those living on the U.S. mainland.
It is my hope that we can settle this issue as soon as possible because it would be a shame for this country to continue Puerto Rico's colonial status. This bill will afford all Puerto Ricans an effective, viable process of self-determination. As a Puerto Rican, I say, "Let us decide this issue once and for all," and as an American Congressman I can say, "Shame on us that we still have a colony in 1997." And, so, let me say that it is in the interest of the United States to settle this issue, settle it clearly and leave no question unanswered as to the self-determination rights of Puerto Rico, with the participation of those of us that reside outside of the island.
This issue is one that touches the heart as well as the mind of every Puerto Rican, whether they are on the island or somewhere in the 50 states. In Spain, Mexico the Armed Forces, etc. they seek information and they are watching closely the decisions we make. It is clear to me that all of us, regardless of where we live and where we stand in terms of the final outcome, feel that the time has come for true self-determination. We are politically mature. Ninety-nine years as an American colony and 400 years as a Spanish colony are more than enough.
My friends we have no credibility in the world if we fail to practice what we preach, if we continue to hear the shame of denying a people the basic human right of political self-determination.
I applaud you all here today because you are taking the issue of the status of Puerto Rico seriously, so the 3.8 million American citizens in Puerto Rico and over 2.7 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland can fulfill their right to self-determination. I earnestly encourage you to forcefully seek passage of this bill so the colonial status of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico can end, and so we may honor their choice of a future, within this Nation or among the nations of the world.