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House Vote on Puerto Rico’s Status Divides Hispanic Lawmakers

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The House last week approved a measure that would allow a referendum on Puerto Rico’s political future. The bill provides for a two-step process in which Puerto Ricans would first vote on whether they wish to maintain the island’s current status as a US commonwealth or change direction. If the latter choice prevails, Puerto Rico could then hold a second vote presenting four options: statehood, independence, the current status or sovereignty linked to the United States. We speak with Rep. José Serrano, who backed the measure. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to José Serrano, Congress member from New York, who has taken a stand on this issue, as well.

Congress member Serrano, welcome to Democracy Now! We’ve been talking all about the sports boycotts being called in Arizona, the Suns playing as “Los Suns” last night on Cinco de Mayo, Charles Barkley coming out condemning the law, Steve Nash. What are you calling for right now when it comes to, well, teams like the Diamondbacks?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Well, I’ve asked Major League Baseball to consider moving, to move the All-Star Game from Phoenix, Arizona, for the 2011 season. Next year’s All-Star Game will be played in Arizona, and I think that it would be totally improper, considering that 27.7 percent of all Major League Baseball players are Latinos, and close to 40 percent of all players from the minor league level up to the major league level are Latino, so at the minimum, when you talk about the Latino immigrant community and the Latino community in general, Major League Baseball should make a statement. The Players Association said that they were upset at the law, but I’ve also asked them to take a step further and begin to sign up baseball players who will state early on that they will not play in Arizona in the All-Star Game if that law continues to be in effect.

And lastly, a few years ago, the NFL, National Football League, was faced with the same situation when Arizona refused to honor the Dr. King birthday celebration that we have in this country, and they pulled the Super Bowl, which had been scheduled for Arizona. So, there’s a history behind this, and I guess one could say Arizona never learns.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Congressman Serrano, I’d like to move on to another issue that you maybe have not gotten as much press attention as you have over your call for the boycott, but could — ultimately has a major, major impact on politics in the United States and in the island of Puerto Rico. For the last 112 years, Puerto Rico has been claimed as a territory of the United States, and last week in Washington the House of Representatives approved a measure that would allow a referendum on Puerto Rico’s political future.

The bill, which passed on a 223-to-169 vote, provides for a two-step process in which Puerto Ricans would first vote on whether they wish to maintain the island’s current status as a US commonwealth or change direction. If the latter choice prevails, Puerto Rico could then hold a second vote presenting four options: statehood, independence, the current status, or sovereignty linked to the United States, known as free association. The voting, however, would not be binding. Admission to the union as a state would still require the approval of the US Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week’s vote divided all four US Congress members of Puerto Rican descent. You, New York Democrat José Serrano, was one of those who backed the measure, joining us on the phone now. Talk about this legislation and the passage of it, what you think the significance is.

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Well, the significance is that, in my opinion, this bill simply begins a process. One could argue that on a couple of occasions Puerto Ricans have spoken on the subject, and it’s true that locally they put together, you know, their version of what the future should be, and they put a plebiscite on, and there was no clear indication of where they wanted to go. But, you know, it wasn’t Puerto Rico that invaded the United States; it was the United States that invaded Puerto Rico in 1898. So I hold that the United States Congress, which is the one that disposes of the territory, should at least ask the folks in Puerto Rico to vote, and then they would consider the vote or not, but at least ask them to vote. So this would be the first time that Congress would have told, during those 112 years, “Go ahead.” So, to me, it starts a process, a process which eventually may end the colonial status.

And I want to be clear. I can give you an argument in favor of independence. I can give you an argument in favor of statehood or free association. I can’t give you an argument in favor of a colonial status. And what I would wish would happen is that at the end of the process Puerto Rico is not a colony of the United States, but either a state, an independent nation or an associated republic.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to play the comments of one of your colleagues and close friends, Nydia Velázquez, the other Puerto Rican member of Congress from New York City, who — she was strongly opposed to this bill. This is some of what she had to say on the floor of the House.

    REP. NYDIA VELÁSQUEZ: Let us be clear. This legislation is designed to push the statehood agenda, regardless of whether that agenda is the best solution for the island or even among the people. The chairman of the Natural Resources Committee also mentioned that four plebiscites have been held in Puerto Rico. Yes, he is correct, and in the past three plebiscites, the men and women of Puerto Rico have consistently voted in favor of commonwealth status and against statehood. I tell you, this legislation has no business being on the floor today. It raises a host of questions. It has zero probability of becoming law; however, it does place members in the awkward position explaining why they are meddling in Puerto Rico when a request from Puerto Rico has not even been made.

    There are economic issues that we must address first. The President has ordered his White House Task Force on Puerto Rico to advise him and Congress on policies and initiatives that promote job creation, education, clean energy, and healthcare. Instead of dealing first with the very real concerns of how the people of Puerto Rico survive day by day, we are telling them our priority is to debate a status bill that will not become law. This is a disgrace. It is baffling that the statehood question, which lost in 1967, 1993, and again in 1998, is now allowed to skim its way to victory.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was US Representative Nydia Velázquez in the debate in the House on the Puerto Rico Democracy Act. José Serrano, your response to your colleague’s opposition to the bill you pushed?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Well, to be clear, and you know this personally, Juan, Nydia is my sister, but on this issue, like all children of a colony, we disagree. There’s great divisions on this issue. First of all, the meddling question. She may not have noticed, but the United States has been meddling in Puerto Rico since 1898, and so this is not meddling, this is simply beginning a process.

Secondly, yes, no one has voted for Puerto Rico under statehood in the beauty contest situations they’ve had, because they have not been real plebiscites, but then no one in Puerto Rico in the leadership of the Commonwealth Party wants the current commonwealth either. They want a different commonwealth. So nobody wants what they have. They just can’t agree, in a way, on what they really want after that.

Lastly, to say that jobs is the only thing that we should be doing now, no, it is always the proper time to deal with civil rights and human rights and colonialism. It is never a wrong time to deal with it.

Now, let me tell you what the commonwealth are proposing, but they’ve never proposed it in bill form. I’ve asked them to do that and take it to the House floor. What they propose is a new commonwealth, where Puerto Ricans will remain American citizens, get a significant more federal dollars, choose and pick whatever federal laws they wish to follow, and be able to exchange ambassadors with other countries. Well, that’s a great deal. I want that deal for the Bronx, and I would be willing to support Puerto Rico in getting it, but you’re not going to get more than about twenty-five votes in Congress for that, because every member of Congress would want that for their district.

As far as the leaning toward statehood, well, the bill was amended by a Republican to include the current status, so the people who claim that we were trying to knock out the commonwealth status will have a chance to vote, as you said, from four options, including commonwealth. What is the problem, finally? That they don’t want the common commonwealth. So they support the fact the commonwealth was included, but they don’t support the bill. My statement to the Commonwealth Party has always been, does commonwealth bring you toward statehood, or does it bring you to independence? You first have to determine that, because one could argue that the longer you’re in a relationship, you’ll end up getting married and not separating.

And lastly, why isn’t associated republic, free association, the next natural step of the commonwealth? But the next step of the commonwealth cannot be an enhanced colony. You can’t wash the face of the colony and claim that it looks better.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Congressman Serrano, the United Nations recognizes three forms, has always recognized three forms of a territory being decolonized. One is independence. Another is the choice of the people of the colony to be annexed, as in a state. Or, as you mentioned, free association, where both sides recognize that both territories are sovereign states, but they enter into an existing relationship. So clearly, the existing commonwealth doesn’t fit under any of those definitions for true decolonization. But there are those, especially in the independence movement, who say that any bill that’s coming out of Congress this way is not the right way to go, that really the United Nations also recognizes that a territory and a people could have a constituent assembly, where they would, of themselves, come together and make a demand on the colonizer nation as to what kind of a status they want. Why haven’t you pursued that direction, to let the people of Puerto Rico, in essence, organize themselves and have a constituent assembly and make a demand to the US Congress?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: I’ve supported that. If you give me an opportunity, I tilt slightly for a direct vote over a constituency assembly. I don’t have a problem with a constitutional assembly. The problem is that the people who support the commonwealth status, or the people who oppose statehood and the people who oppose independence, oppose it every time something is proposed, but never propose anything themselves. In other words, Luis Fortuño and I had a bill. Don Young had a bill. Serrano and Fortuño, changing the sponsorship order, had a bill. Pierluisi has a bill. But the people who oppose statehood and who oppose independence, which are the commonwealth people, never propose a bill. They simply oppose whatever is put before them. They have an opportunity right now, during this process, to write a bill about an assembly. Bring it to Nydia Velázquez, bring it to Luis Gutiérrez, bring it to me, put it on the House floor. I’ll support it. I mean, I’ll support anything, Juan, that begins a process. What I won’t support is anything that reaffirms the colonial status of Puerto Rico.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And one last question, the House — didn’t the House approve a similar measure about ten years ago, but it never got through the Senate? And are you facing the possibility that this bill, approved by the House now, will die because the Senate doesn’t take action?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Well, two things here. First of all, my sister Nydia said on the House floor, this is not going anywhere. Well, when it was introduced, they said it would never go to subcommittee, then that it wouldn’t go to the full committee, then that it wouldn’t go to the floor, then that it would never pass. So the Senate surprises me at times. You don’t know what they’ll do before December 31st. There’s also the possibility that the Puerto Rican state legislature may take the House bill and say, you know, the whole Congress didn’t speak, but the US House of Representatives spoke by a margin larger than the vote that we passed healthcare by, in a bipartisan vote — and it was bipartisan — so therefore, we will take that as a model and run our own plebiscite. So there are a lot of possibilities of what could happen. I just keep wondering, Juan, why it is that the Commonwealth Party opposes, but never proposes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there. Congress member José Serrano, we want to thank you very much for joining us —-

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: —- from Washington, DC.

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