Congressional Testimony

(Copyright 1998 by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.)
July 14, 1998

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, good morning. My name is Carlos Romero-Barcelo' and I am the sole, duly elected, non-voting representative to Congress of the island's 3.8 million United States citizens.

I want to thank the Chairman and the members of this Committee for scheduling this hearing and discussion on the Puerto Rico Status Bill--S. 472--and its companion legislation in the House, H.R. 856. It is a real privilege to be here today to take part in this historic process. The unresolved dilemma of Puerto Rico's status is the single most important long-term issue of concern to all Puerto Ricans; it permeates every aspect of our political and economic life and it holds our future hostage. 1998 marks the centennial anniversary of the end of the Spanish-American War and the beginning of Puerto Rico's status as an unincorporated territory of the United States. It marks one hundred years of Congressional indifference to the Puerto Rican dream of political equality; and it marks a century through which the democratic rights of the people of Puerto Rico have been ignored; unhappily I may add, as a result of our acquiescence and our inaction and acceptance. of a relationship which denies democracy to almost 4 million U.S. citizens.

But 1998 could sound a grace note. This centennial year offers the people of Puerto Rico and Congress a historic opportunity to undo the unequal relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico and to extend to the U.S. citizens of the island the full rights and guarantees of citizenship--through the exercise of the right of self-determination S. 472 and H.R. 856 pack the "right stuff" to accomplish this historic mission. By providing definitions that detail the privileges and limitations of each status option, Congress introduces a truth-in-labeling policy that is essential if the process of self-determination is to have meaning and legitimacy.

For nearly five decades, an honest debate on status has been frustrated by misrepresentations ' of the truth about the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the nature of the U.S. citizenship bestowed on the residents of the island.

In 1950, when Congress passed the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, it authorized the people of Puerto Rico to draw up a constitution and develop a local self-government. Although a by-product of this process was the creation of the so-called Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Federal Relations Act did not alter the island's status as an unincorporated territory subject to the authority and plenary powers of Congress under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution. Congressional intent was clear; the purpose of the legislation was to give a new name to the political relationship and allow the local government to be set up under a Constitution in lieu of a federal statute until the issue of status was resolved.

Commonwealth architect Luis Munoz Marin understood this. In testimony during a Congressional hearing on March 4, 1950, he acknowledged that the Federal Relations Act "did not change the fundamental conditions of Puerto Rico as to non-incorporation and only permitted Puerto Rico to develop its own self government." Although he did not expressly use the phrase "local self government," he obviously understood that the word "local" was implied.

However, when partisans "sold" the Commonwealth status to the people of Puerto Rico, the sales pitch did not reflect the reality of our circumstances as a territory. Instead, Commonwealth was hailed as a treaty, a "bilateral pact" that could only be altered by "mutual consent." Under this rubric, the island's territorial status was called "commonwealth" in English, but in Spanish it was called "Estado Libre Asociado," which literally translated means "Free-Associated State."

But the notion that Puerto Rico supposedly signed a bilateral pact with the United States and that it really was a free associated state implied a degree of sovereignty that Puerto Rico never possessed, much less exercised. For that reason, Gov. Munoz Marin realized that he could not use the literal translation of Estado Libre Asociado and decided to use the word "commonwealth," which meant nothing more than a "body politic."

Unfortunately, the U.S. government became a party to this misrepresentation. In 1953, it notified the United Nations that it would no longer submit reports regarding the status of Puerto Rico because it claimed that the island had achieved a "full measure" of self-government and administration under the "new constitutional arrangement."

We all know that was a fiction. The unvarnished truth is that Puerto Rico's colonial status never changed. To this day, the economic, social and political affairs of the people of Puerto Rico are controlled and influenced by a government which is in no way politically accountable to us. Puerto Ricans may not vote in presidential elections and we have no voting representation in Congress. We proudly march off -to war under the stars and stripes, but we may not vote for the President who calls us to arms. Landmark legislation on status comes before Congress, but the sole, duly elected representative of the nearly 4 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico, has no vote when the legislation reaches the floor of either chamber.

Inexcusably, the deception continues. In English, Puerto Rico is called a Commonwealth, alluding to the likes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the Commonwealth of Virginia and inferring that Puerto Rico has been incorporated into the United States and that its residents enjoy the same rights and guarantees as those citizens in the states of Virginia and Massachusetts. In Spanish, the island is described as el Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, which translates as the Free-Associated State of Puerto Rico. This nomenclature creates the illusion that the island is an independent country which enjoys equal stature with the United States in the community of nations.

In one deft rhetorical flourish, Commonwealth appears to be all things to all Puerto Ricans while failing to secure the elemental right of self-determination upon which our independence or our incorporation as a state or even our status as free-associated state depends.

Proponents of Commonwealth forestall any movement on status by maintaining their charade in the poll booth. For example, in a 1993 non-binding plebiscite on Puerto Rico's status, the definition of Commonwealth offered by its proponents described a status structure that simply does not exist. And this fantasy of an enhanced--and, by the way, unconstitutional-Commonwealth was pitted against the immutable definitions of separate sovereignty and statehood. Such word play makes a mockery of the process of self-determination and it puts at risk one of the things Puerto Ricans value most for ourselves and our children, and that is our standing as U.S. citizens.

For half a century, Commonwealth advocates have assured Puerto Ricans that their U.S. citizenship is 'irrevocable." That may be true for the present generation--our citizenship will not be revoked without our consent--but it is not a heritage that necessarily will transfer, irrevocably, to future generations of Puerto Ricans. The fact is that a statute--and ours is a statutory citizenship--does not have the same staying power as the constitution. And, except for naturalized citizens, the constitution only guarantees citizenship to individuals born. in one of the states.

The people of Puerto Rico deserve straight talk and only Congress can put an end to decades of double talk. This is why it is imperative that any legislation on status contain explicit descriptions of each status option. Both S. 472 and H.R. 856 adhere to this principle, providing accurate and constitutionally-sound definitions. And though the definitions in the bills differ slightly in degree of detail, they are compatible in their substance.

S. 472 is thoughtful, status-neutral legislation that addresses all the elements necessary for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to exercise self-determination and to see their decision implemented responsibly, with planning and care. In sports terminology, S. 472 is legislation that can go the distance; so is H.R. 856. The rest is up to Congress.

Congress must reject the arguments of those who would deny the American citizens in Puerto Rico the right to vote on status, because they fear that the island's residents will choose statehood. It must reject the nativist sentiment that the Hispanic heritage of Puerto Rico disqualifies our American citizens from equal participation in the American dream; and it must reject obstructionist tactics to impose historically-unprecedented language or super-majority requirements on the Puerto Rican electorate in order for it to petition for statehood.

The people of Puerto Rico have affirmed, repeatedly, their desire to be an integral part of this great nation. In the poll booth, more than 95% have voted for U.S. citizenship and some form of association with the United States. To require a super-majority standard for statehood is prejudicial to that status option, since no one has suggested that a super majority be required of a vote for commonwealth or independence.

What is more, incorporation as a state has never depended on either an electoral or a Congressional super majority. Congress ignored the indifference of territorial residents to pass enabling acts for Colorado and Nebraska. The citizens of Colorado rejected statehood by resoundingly defeating their first state constitution. Later, the second state constitution prevailed by a mere 150 votes. Nebraskan voters defeated two proposals for state constitutional conventions before grudgingly consenting to join the union with only 100 votes to spare.

When the Republic of Texas and the United States each failed to ratify a treaty of annexation, Congress adopted a different strategy and drew up a Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas. Even that almost failed; in the Senate the resolution squeaked by with just two votes to spare. And let us not forget that these United States were preserved in the face of and despite the outright hostility on the part of the states south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The American citizens in Puerto Rico are patriots who have risked life and limb for this democracy. Since 1917, when citizenship was extended to island's residents, more that 400,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. In fact, beginning with World War I, an estimated 197,000 Puerto Ricans have fought in every military engagement the country has faced during this century. Forty-eight thousand Puerto Ricans served in Vietnam and during the Korean conflict, the 61,000 troops sent to the front by Puerto Rico outnumbered the forces of 32 states in absolute numbers and were second only to Hawaii when measured on a per capita basis. It is a sad irony that the language or ethnicity of Puerto Ricans is irrelevant when they are called to defend democracy, but it becomes a cause of alarm when they want to participate as equals in the democracy they have helped secure.

Finally, Congress must turn a deaf ear to the economic arguments raised against Puerto Rican self-determination. To justify colonialism because a territory fails to thrive under a colonial economy is the ultimate catch-22. The arguments that statehood will be too costly, locally and nationally, and that Federal taxes will destroy the local economy are arguments that were raised, most recently, against Alaska and Hawaii. Similar economic objections were voiced in protest against the inclusion of at least twenty other states which have managed to thrive since their incorporation.

Puerto Rico will thrive as well, because it has outstanding human resources and the assets for growth. These assets include a strong manufacturing base, skilled workers, many of whom are bilingual and experienced in the use of hi-tech equipment, it's strategic location and the tourist appeal of its scenic beauty and historic landmarks. If the members of Congress want the territory's economy to grow, they need to liberate Puerto Rico's economic and political future from the terminal uncertainty of its unresolved territorial status.

Carpe diem, seize the day! "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven," to quote Ecclesiastes. And after a century of debate, now is the time for Congress to pass status legislation and now is the season for the people of Puerto Rico to exercise democracy's fundamental right of self-determination. Thank you.

See Entire Hearing Transcript

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