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National Puerto Rican Agenda: New Group Forms to Address Island’s Unprecedented Economic Crisis

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Some 150 Puerto Rican elected officials, community leaders and activists from across the United States gathered Sunday near Philadelphia ahead of the Democratic National Convention to found the National Puerto Rican Agenda to organize support for Puerto Rico during the island’s unprecedented financial and economic crisis. This comes a month after Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the controversial PROMESA law, which provides a way for Puerto Rico to restructure its $70 billion debt but also creates a new financial control board to oversee the island’s financial affairs. Today, on the 118th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, and on the 64th anniversary of the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the new group plans to press its concerns to Democratic Party delegates with a rally near Philadelphia’s City Hall. We speak with two of its newly elected leaders, Roseni Plaza and Natascha Otero-Santiago.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We are “Breaking with Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency,” broadcasting from PhillyCAM—that’s Philadelphia’s public access TV station—for this full week, two hours a day, expanded coverage of the Democratic National Convention. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, some 150 Puerto Rican elected officials, community leaders and activists from across the United States gathered for an all-day assembly Sunday, just before the opening of the Democratic National Convention, to found the National Puerto Rican Agenda, an organization that will seek to organize support for Puerto Rico during the island’s unprecedented financial and economic crisis.

The new group of stateside Puerto Ricans convened in Camden, New Jersey, just across the river from Philadelphia, less than a month after Congress passed and President Obama signed the controversial PROMESA law, which provides a way for Puerto Rico to restructure its $70 billion debt, but which also creates a new financial control board to oversee the island’s financial affairs.

AMY GOODMAN: Its members approved a program, bylaws, and elected officers, and vowed to monitor how the new PROMESA law is implemented. They approved plans to marshal pressure on lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to equalize funding for Medicaid and Medicare in Puerto Rico, to exempt Puerto Rico from onerous U.S. shipping laws that drive up the cost of goods entering Puerto Rico, and to advocate for Congress to finally begin the process of decolonizing Puerto Rico in accordance with international law. And today, on the 118th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, and the 64th anniversary of the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the new group plans to press its concerns to Democratic Party delegates with a rally near Philadelphia’s City Hall.

To talk more about the new group, we are joined by two of its leaders who were elected yesterday. Roseni Plaza was elected treasurer of the new national organization, and Natascha Otero-Santiago is the board member in charge of social media.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with Natascha? Tell us what you’re planning to do.

NATASCHA OTERO-SANTIAGO: Well, The National Puerto Rican Agenda, that we had started in October, we actually have had a communications plan through Facebook and Twitter and NationBuilder, and I’m part of that communications team. I’m also the chairman of the South Florida chapter that was just incorporated yesterday. It’s very necessary. There are more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans in the South Florida area, in the Tri-County area, which a lot of—a lot of people give attention to the Puerto Ricans in Orlando, Tampa, I-4 corridor, but a lot of people don’t know about how many Puerto Ricans have moved and migrated to South Florida in the last 10 years. So, I think it’s necessary to pay attention to that Puerto Rican community of professionals that are moving to South Florida.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this meeting, which I had the opportunity to attend the entire thing, it was a long, long day. In terms of what you are hoping to accomplish by actually formalizing a structure, officers and leaders of the Puerto Rican community in the United States?

NATASCHA OTERO-SANTIAGO: Well, it’s an advocate group. It’s an advocate group that is looking to have connections in Washington, D.C., with senators and councilmembers in all the major areas where there are Puerto Rican communities, like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Lancaster, New York and Florida and Chicago. And that’s one of the things that we are—we are the most interested in, finding new political leaders, adhering ourselves to political leaders that are right now, letting them know that we are a watchdog now for the PROMESA and the fiscal board, and I think that’s one of the things that is most important for us.

AMY GOODMAN: Roseni, can you talk about what’s happening in Puerto Rico right now and how it relates to these conventions and what’s happening in the U.S. Congress?

ROSENI PLAZA: Well, you know, at this point in Puerto Rico, there are so many people that are actually suffering over there, and this humanitarian crisis has really brought us to form this organization. And, you know, as people in the United States, we really have a sense of responsibility for the people in Puerto Rico. You know, one of the major things that I always even speak to my son, my niece, my family here, is to help them understand that when you are in Puerto Rico, you cannot vote for the president of the United States, but once you fly into the mainland, as we call it, you’re able to vote for the president. So, for us, it’s a very big responsibility that we actually speak for our Puerto Ricans in Congress and we do that, you know, the way we’re trying to do it, in an organized fashion, getting all our elected officials to really go in for us.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an issue that’s close to your heart, Juan. Talk about why that is, people in Puerto Rico not voting for president of the United States. And what’s happening right now with PROMESA and the control board?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, obviously, one of the issues that folks have to deal with is the reality, as—and one of the planks of the new organization is to finally get a decolonization process, because as long as Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States, where the residents of the island are citizens of the U.S. but do not have the chance to vote for president, do not elect members to the United States Senate—

AMY GOODMAN: Unless you move to New York, Pennsylvania or Florida.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —or to elect members of the House of Representatives. So, the problem when the PROMESA bill was being debated in the House and in the Senate, that the very people that it affected had no voting representation in the House or the Senate. They only had one nonresident commissioner, who had a voice in the House of Representatives, but no vote. So, the reality is that the elected officials here and the community leaders here become, as you were saying, the voice of the Puerto Rico community, because they have no actual voice in Congress. But I wanted to ask you, one of the things that you apparently—that was decided at the assembly yesterday was to especially focus efforts, advocacy efforts, in three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Why?

ROSENI PLAZA: Because this is where we have a major shift in population. You know, there are many Puerto Ricans who are now moving to these very specific states because of the fact that they’re looking for jobs. They’re looking to—you know, to come here and get away from what is happening in Puerto Rico. And being that we’re here, now we want them to vote. We want them to register to vote. And we want them to activate that voice that’s been silenced by just living in Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re also talking about battleground states.

ROSENI PLAZA: Absolutely, absolutely. And we are trying to get them out voting, all the Puerto Ricans that have moved over here. We want them to be registered right here to vote and understand the importance of our political voice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why here at the Democratic convention? And why have a rally here at the Democratic convention today, this afternoon?

NATASCHA OTERO-SANTIAGO: Well, I think it’s very important. I think that it’s to represent, to let them know that this national gathering of more than 150 people, and actually, we’re expecting more for the rally, but yesterday we were 150 delegates from throughout the United States, and that we have this voice. And it’s necessary for both Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the DNC, even the Bernie Sanders campaign, to understand the importance of the Puerto Rican voice and vote in the United States.

ROSENI PLAZA: And we also want to show that we’re united. We’re a united front. And this is something that is very important to the Puerto Ricans here in the United States. So we need to absolutely demonstrate that to all the delegates that are going to be around town.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Juan, the significance of these anniversaries—118, 64—for people who aren’t familiar with U.S. colonial history in Puerto Rico?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, July 25th happens to have a special meaning in Puerto Rico, because it was on July 25th, 1898, that General Nelson Miles and several thousand U.S. Navy troops landed in Guánica, Puerto Rico, during the Spanish-American War to supposedly liberate the people of Puerto Rico. But then the Navy and the military never left, and Puerto Rico then was—remained a colonial territory of the United States. And then, in 1952, when the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was created, it was created specifically on July 25th to commemorate the original American invasion. And so, it is sort of the founding day of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, July 25th, 1952.

And what we’ve seen in the last few weeks, through the decisions in the Supreme Court, through the Obama administration’s arguments in those cases, and through the actions of the Congress in PROMESA, is that all branches of the United States government—the Supreme Court, the White House and Congress—have all said, “Guess what, Puerto Rico didn’t really get autonomy in 1952 when the commonwealth was declared. We lied to the United Nations that the people of Puerto Rico had self-government, because we are now imposing a financial control board, and we’re arguing before the Supreme Court that there is no sovereignty on the part of the Puerto Rican people.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’re going to continue to follow this issue, as we always do. We want to thank you, Natascha Otero-Santiago and Roseni Plaza, for joining us.

ROSENI PLAZA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Officials with the newly formed National Puerto Rican Agenda. This is Democracy Now! We are “Breaking with Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.”

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