Congressional Testimony

(Copyright 1998 by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.)
On S. 472
"The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 1997"
To provide referenda in which the residents of Puerto Rico may express democratically their preferences regarding the political status of the territory.
July 15, 1998

Good morning Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, and fellow Members of Congress. I want to thank you, Senator Murkowski, your Committee staff, and everyone who has worked so very hard, with exemplary fairness, unswerving commitment to democracy, and untiring efforts, on behalf of full democratic rights for all the American citizens of Puerto Rico. This collective effort truly exemplifies the best of true American democratic tradition. This is indeed a historic moment. S. 472 will provide the first ever Congressionally mandated referendum on the political status of the territory of Puerto Rico. Mr. Chairman, my deepest thanks for keeping this process moving. I look forward to seeing it brought to a successful conclusion.


I appear before you in strong and full support of S. 472. This bill establishes a process to end the present colonial status of Puerto Rico. This bill has bipartisan support for good reasons. It is a good bill, a needed bill. I fully support the process for decolonization and self-determination established in this bill -it is a basic right of all free peoples.


The actual status of Puerto Rico is a colony - nothing more, nothing less - because Puerto Rico is under the territorial clause of the United States Constitution and Congress has plenary powers over it. Thus, among other things, Puerto Rico is subject to all federal laws, although it does not have voting representation in the federal legislative process. Nor is Puerto Rico sovereign and able to pursue its interests in the world.

From its discovery by Columbus in 1493 until American Troops invaded and occupied the Island in 1898, during the Spanish American War, Puerto Rico endured 405 years of colonialism by Spain . Since then, from 1898 until now, it has endured another 100 years of colonialism by us. Today it is still a colony that continues vehemently to ask for its basic democratic right of self-determination.

This bill is the vehicle to end the 100 years of colonial status for the 3.8 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. The people of Puerto Rico have been denied the sovereignty that is acquired either through independence or statehood long enough. It is time to correct that un-American condition. This is an appropriately historic year to approve this bill. On July 25, 1998, Puerto Rico will become the United States', and the world's, oldest colony. How tragic it would be if the country that professes to be the strongest supporter of democracy refuses to step up to the plate and advance the process for ending the colonial status of Puerto Rico.

I do not care if statehood wins. I do not care if independence wins. I do care every day when I get up and I realize that the American citizens residing in Puerto Rico are all colonial subjects of this nation. This must change!

In the meantime, in this century the following territories of this Nation have been admitted to the Union or granted independence:

  1. The territory of Oklahoma, sold by France to the United States in 1803, became a State on November 16, 1907;
  2. The Territories of New Mexico and Arizona were admitted to the Union on January 6, 1912;
  3. On July 4, 1946, the Philippines, acquired by the United States during the Spanish-American War, became an independent nation;
  4. On January 3, 1959, the territory of Alaska, purchased it from Russia in 1867, became the 49th State of the Union;
  5. On August 21, 1959, the territory of Hawaii, annexed in 1898, became the 50th State of the Union.

The desire of the people of the territory of Puerto Rico to determine and express their preference regarding their political status has a long history. In 1898, 1914 and 1917, leading Puerto Rican figures proposed that plebiscites be held. In the 1920's and 30's, proposals for a plebiscite were made by the principal political parties in Puerto Rico.

Congress provided Puerto Rico with increasing levels of self- government for the first half of this century, culminating with the authorization in 1950 of the process of developing a local constitutional government. By 1952, Congress conditionally approved a draft constitution submitted by the legislature of Puerto Rico. After the required changes were made by Puerto Rico, the new constitutional government of the territory became effective under the name declared by the constitutional convention as the "Commonwealth of Puerto Rico". However, the establishment of local constitutional self-government did not alter Congress' constitutional powers and responsibility under the Territorial Clause for Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rico legislature sent joint resolutions to Congress in 1993, 1994 and 1997 requesting congressional action to define the political status and establish process to resolve Puerto Rico's political dilemma.


As far back as the 94th Congress, virtually every Congress has worked on this issue, both in the House and in the Senate. Extensive testimony has been heard. Numerous site visits and fact finding trips have been made over the years, too, especially in the last two Congresses, to study the Puerto Rico situation. In particular, extensive testimony across the political spectrum was heard in Puerto Rico and in Washington regarding legislation very similar to this. There was ample deliberation, mediation, and compromise on the issue. This process has been absolutely fair and culminated in the March 4, approval by the House of a good and fair bill, H. R. 856, which is substantially similar to S. 472.

So as you all can see, this issue is not a last minute issue, hastily promoted. It is an issue on which Congress has done its homework very well. It has acted in an extremely responsible and democratic way. It is time to complete the process, by approving this bill in this Committee and in the whole Senate.

If we fail, this nation will be viewed as a nation that preaches one thing and does another with its own citizens. As we get closer to the year 2000, we, the greatest democracy on Earth, incredibly still hold close to 4 million people in colonial subjugation. Instead, we should heed the United Nations' call for the end of colonialism in the world before the end of his decade.

For half a century, our nation has been committed to political freedom and self-determination around the world. In his special Message to Congress on Puerto Rico, on October 16, 1945, President Harry S. Truman said: "To this end, I recommend that the Congress consider each of the proposals, and that legislation be enacted submitting various alternatives to the people of Puerto Rico. In that way, the Congress can ascertain what the people of Puerto Rico themselves most desire for their political future." Since then, Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and William J. Clinton all have supported self-determination for Puerto Rico.

Moreover, both the Democratic and Republican party platforms have supported self-determination by the people of Puerto Rico. But support is not enough. The fact is that we have inexplicably, inexcusably and absolutely shamefully failed to extend that basic democratic right to our own American citizens residing in our own American colony. Yes, in our own American colony.


S. 472 includes carefully crafted and accurate definitions for all three status options Statehood, Independence and the current Commonwealth. Each was defined in a manner consistent with our Constitution and federal laws. Puerto Ricans are fully aware of what it is to live under the territorial clause of the United States Constitution, that is what they currently do. We all know what a sovereign Nation will entail, whether an Associated Republic like Palau or Micronesia or an independent Nation like the Philippines. We all have extensive knowledge of what a State of the Union is: sovereign, yet limited by the United States Constitution.

S. 472 has realistic status option definitions and that is as it should be.


S. 472 does not place any language requirements on any of the status options and that, too, is as it should be.

Let's face the reality of the 21st century - we live in a multicultural and multilingual society, and this is America's strength. We are a proud nation of immigrants. English- only isolates the U.S. from the rest of the world. We live in a global economy, requiring Americans to be more proficient in the languages, and cognizant of the cultural norms and sensitivities, and the business practices of our international trading partners. The majority of federal documents are already in English. According to the General Accounting Office, only 0.06% of federal documents are printed in non-English languages. Rather than restrict the use of non-English languages, we should be expanding our fluency in several different languages.

Moreover, the United States never asked Puerto Rico to adopt English when it invaded the island in 1898 nor when it sent our brothers and sisters to fight in American wars. This bill should not have any language requirements. It is about self-determination and not about "English Only" or "English First". The fact is that Puerto Rico has an historic commitment to both languages, English and Spanish. Both Hawaii and New Mexico have dual official languages. In 1902 Puerto Rico recognized English and Spanish together as their official language of local government. If statehood is granted, Puerto Rico should not be treated any differently from any state regarding language. Our commitment to liberty, common rights, mutual responsibilities and high goals, not English, form are the common denominator that bonds all Americans.

In addition, Puerto Rico's current bilingual language policy serves well as a cultural, economic, social and political bridge between the United States and the Spanish-speaking nations of the world.

We need to promote greater cross-cultural understanding between different racial and ethnic groups in this Nation. Our cultural and linguistic richness should be conserved and developed.

English-only is divisive. Implementing English-only policies would aggravate racial and ethnic tensions not only in Puerto Rico, but in the United States. It would further isolate non-native speakers of English by discouraging them from fully integrating themselves into our society, and fully participating in our political process.


Mr. Chairman, S. 472 should be amended to provide that American citizens who were born in Puerto Rico but reside outside the island can participate in the plebiscite vote.

This proposal comes about because, as many of us understand, the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico created situations throughout our history which made a lot of us, either as children with our parents, or as adults by ourselves, leave Puerto Rico and settle on the mainland. We left the Island physically, but we never did leave the Island in many other respects. In addition, many of us travel back and forth to the Island and there is a union between the two places.

This amendment would be about the future of a territory, of a colony. And when that future is decided forever, then all of the children of the territory, all of the children of the colony, should be allowed to vote.

This amendment would maximize the number of people who will participate and, in my opinion, make the plebiscite truly an American plebiscite by including more than just the people who live on the Island.

More important, the U.S. citizenship conveyed by law to people born in Puerto Rico could be affected by the outcome of the referendum. I have no doubt that this Congress can pass a law to take my citizenship away from me and rescind the citizenship of all born in Puerto Rico. I am clear on the fact that my son's citizenship is different from mine. His is protected by the Constitution of the United States and mine is statutory.

The outcome of this plebiscite could affect people like myself who were born on the Island. This could affect the future of all Puerto Ricans, whether they live in or out of Puerto Rico. And so it is only right that on a plebiscite that will have such profound consequences on the future of the people, all who were born in Puerto Rico be given the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination.

This vote is a different vote, it is not a vote for the Governor of Puerto Rico or mayor of my hometown, Mayaguez. This is a one-time vote on this very unique status question. These people have been subsumed under the American flag through conquest and, by virtue of that, they have been extended citizenship through congressional action. Puerto Ricans are to a very large degree a Nation of people. They can be integrated into the union as Hawaii was. They can become a separate Nation as the Philippines did. That, too, can happen. That is why we should embrace the voter eligibility that I propose, which allows participation to all those people that became citizens by virtue of congressional action.

This amendment was agreed to by they House Republican leadership, but at the last minute, a parliamentary misstep caused its defeat.


S. 472, the "Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 1997" has broad bipartisan support. This bill is carefully crafted. It provides a mechanism for Puerto Rico to exercise self-determination and end its present colonial status. Under it, the people of Puerto Rico would choose between joining the Union as a State, becoming a separate sovereign nation, or retaining their current status until one of the decolonization options is chosen. It does not favor one solution over another. Some people who are mis-informed, and others who hope to defeat the bill by mis-characterizing it, will say, that this bill is slanted towards statehood. That is absolutely not true. This bill provides for the Congress to consult the people of Puerto Rico regarding which decolonizing option --statehood or independence-they prefer, or whether they prefer to remain as they now are. Once the people of Puerto Rico respond with their votes in a plebiscite, we in Congress, our commitment is to take up the results not to implement them. Therefore, to suggest this bill favors one option is to suggest that Congress has already made up its mind on the issue. If Puerto Rico does not choose a decolonizing option, and chooses to remain a Commonwealth as it is now, it can do so indefinitely, or until Congress decides otherwise.


I also urge this Committee to favorably consider this bill, and for the Senate to approve it, because it is an issue of great interest to the Hispanic community of this Nation. The Hispanic community strongly supports self-determination for Puerto Rico. That support is evidenced by the endorsement of key national Hispanic organizations such as the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the American G.I. Forum, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, the National Hispanic Policy Forum, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association of Hispanic Publications, among others.

The American Hispanic community is the fastest growing community in the nation. Early in the next century it is projected that one in every ten Americans will be of Hispanic origin. It is also projected that Hispanics then will be the largest minority group in the Nation, and that no group will constitute an absolute majority of the population.


Mr.Chairman, it is time to act. It is time to consider and pass S.472. Passage of S.472 will serve our democratic ideals well.

Puerto Rico is a United States territory with 3.8 million American citizens. It is the largest colony of the United States. And it is in fact, the oldest colony in the world today. The time is long past that we should have given the people of Puerto Rico, the opportunity to become either a state of the Union or a sovereign nation, as they may choose by a majority of their votes.

Although we call Puerto Rico a "Commonwealth," or a "Territory," there is no question that Puerto Rico is a true colony of the United States, for Congress unilaterally exercises plenary powers over Puerto Rico under the territorial clause of the United States Constitution. Puerto Rico plays no role in the life of the international community, either directly, or indirectly as a participant in the decisions taken by the United States. In the Caribbean and in Latin America, as well as in the rest of the world, Puerto Rico is seen as a colony of the United States.

On July 25, 1898, the United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain during the Spanish-American War. When the U.S. troops landed on the island of Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans offered little, if any, resistance to American soldiers. Some Puerto Ricans believed they should be saved from Spanish imperialism. Little did they know that Puerto Rico would instead move onto 100 more years of colonization, this time by the United States. For good or bad, as a result of that war, the political fate of Puerto Rico was determined by a new emerging powerful country - the United States of America. Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States by virtue of the Treaty of Paris, in 1898. This year is the 100th anniversary of the acquisition of Puerto Rico by the United States of America. It is therefore fitting that we reflect today on the 100-year relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.

In 1917, Congress unilaterally conferred United States citizenship on the people of Puerto Rico. Since then, the political, economic and social relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has been central to its development, politics and identity.

What has been the result of this 100-year relationship with the United States? We can't ignore the fact that the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico had some difficult times. Among them were the economic conditions which caused many Puerto Ricans to migrate to the mainland United States.

Fortunately, the difficult times were followed by a series of initiatives designed to grant Puerto Rico greater control over local affairs and to reform the economy. However, the powers of internal self-government granted to Puerto Rico remain subject to the plenary powers of the Congress under the territorial clause of the U. S. Constitution. In fact, what self-government the American colony of Puerto Rico enjoys, it enjoys solely and absolutely by the graciousness of the United States Congress. And moreover, for as long, and only for as long, as the Congress may dictate.

Since World War I, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have courageously served in the United States Armed Forces, fighting and dying for this Nation. For 80 years, throughout every major international conflict of this century, Puerto Rican mothers and fathers in the colony of Puerto Rico have shed their tears and given their sons and daughters to fight for "liberty and justice for all." Those sons and daughters have given their sweat, their blood and their very lives to defend this Nation and our democratic ideals around the world. It is time to show some decency, some gratitude to those who have stood with us for so long, by giving them their choice of statehood or independence.

The Congress has never given Puerto Ricans such a choice. By failing to do so, the nation, the master, has in fact denied Puerto Ricans their right to freely choose their political status, thus denying the right of self-determination.

Throughout this century, efforts by some Members of Congress to solve the status problem of Puerto Rico have resulted in nothing. But the people of Puerto Rico still have a right to full self-government, either as a sovereign independent nation or as a sovereign state in the American Union.

Democracy and colonialism are absolutely incompatible. The United States may take pride in calling itself the champion of democracy in the world. But it has absolutely no right whatsoever to continue to maintain Puerto Rico in colonial subjugation without periodically giving Puerto Rico the right to choose one of the only two decolonizing options -independence or statehood. Moreover, it has the inescapable duty to grant the people of Puerto Rico whichever one of those two decolonizing options -independence or statehood- Puerto Rico chooses. Therefore, Congress must now give Puerto Rico the option to decolonize. S. 472 will do this. It provides for a process for Puerto Rico to make a choice in a federally mandated referendum to be held no later than December 31, 1998.

The United States must work to fulfill the challenge posed by the United Nations, that colonialism be ended in the world by the year 2000. How can we, the greatest democracy in the world, the staunchest supporters of self-determination, still hold close to 4 million of our citizens in colonial subjugation?

See Entire Hearing Transcript

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