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Puerto Rico: House Dems Criticized over Handling of Bill to Let Residents Choose Status of Territory

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Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have introduced the Puerto Rico Status Act, which would allow residents of the longtime U.S. colony to begin the process of self-determination and decide on the island’s territorial status. The bill sets up three options for residents to choose from in a referendum — U.S. statehood, independence or sovereignty in free association with the United States — and commits Congress to abide by the results. We speak to San Juan’s former Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz about the shortcomings of the bill, which she says lacks clarity on what each status would mean for Puerto Ricans. Among the concerns are whether Spanish would be taught as a primary language in government-funded public schools. Many do not understand “the rush to do it and, in doing so, not allowing the Puerto Rican people to have all the information to exercise their freedom to choose,” says Cruz.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to Puerto Rico.

The House Natural Resources Committee in Washington has advanced the Puerto Rico Status Act, a bill that would allow residents of Puerto Rico to decide on the island’s territorial status. The bill for the first time acknowledges the need to end Puerto Rico’s colonial status by excluding the current commonwealth option, and offers instead a referendum of the Puerto Rican people on the three choices historically recognized by the United Nations as a true decolonization process: independence, statehood or free association with sovereignty for Puerto Rico. It also commits Congress for the first time to abide by the results of that referendum.

However, the bill is facing opposition from many Puerto Rican groups, who have called for public hearings on the legislation and clarification on several key provisions having to do with the language and citizenship status of the island’s residents under independence or free association.

We go now to Puerto Rico, where we’re joined by Carmen Yulín Cruz, former mayor of San Juan. She recently wrote a letter to House majority — to Steny Hoyer outlining her concerns over the bill.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you start off by just responding to what took place in Washington around Puerto Rico?

CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Yes. First of all, thank you for having me, Amy and Juan.

I just want to touch upon very quickly — you had one of the leaders of one of the Native American nations with you a few minutes ago. And if you look at the process of decolonization and self-determination, we’re all looking for the same thing. We’re looking for justice. We’re looking for our national identity to be respected. And we’re also looking for our voices to be heard. So, this is a thread of colonization that runs through various areas of the United States.

Last — and this is important, Amy, the timeframe for this bill. Last July 15th, the bill was finally introduced. This was a bill that has never been formally translated into Spanish, so many Puerto Ricans who are not bilingual are unable to read and make a judgment for themselves. And then, last week, there was a markup hearing. This is not a formal hearing. This is not a hearing, again, where people that only speak Spanish in Puerto Rico would have had simultaneous translation given to them for them to be able to have the facts. You know, one of the issues of pursuing your happiness is: Can you really pursue your happiness and have freedom, as the Founding Fathers wanted, if you do not have all the details of what is going on? So I wrote a letter to Congressman Steny Hoyer saying that the process, even though we recognize it’s a step in the right direction and moves in the right direction, it has some very big flaws that make it undemocratic and, frankly, un-American.

One of the things is, for example, with statehood. It doesn’t really define what statehood is. It says statehood would be the same as with other states. However, one of the bills that — of the amendments that we would have wanted to introduce would be: Could Puerto Rico maintain its own political — its own Olympic team? We know, though, that that’s impossible. But pro-statehood defenders in Puerto Rico keep telling Puerto Ricans that we will maintain our own Olympic team. I don’t see Texas, New York, California having their own teams. Why would Puerto Rico be treated different?

It almost seems like pro-statehooders are looking here in Puerto Rico to dish out the theory of separate but equal, meaning they want Puerto Rico to be a state, but they want Spanish to be spoken here. For example, would Spanish be the language where we teach our children in public schools, and English as a second language as we teach it right now? Even though the Constitution doesn’t say that English is the official language of the U.S. and even though there are many languages spoken in the U.S., you, Amy and Juan, we all know that English is the predominant language and the language mostly used by government. But again, statehooders keep telling, “Don’t worry, we will continue to have everything done in Spanish in the government.” So, those are things that really need to be clarified. Puerto Ricans need to know that they will pay federal taxes and how much federal taxes will be paid. None of those things are existent in this bill.

For free association, there is a major flaw, which is illegal currently in the United States. As you know, Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the U.S. in 1917 — coincidentally enough, to draft us into World War I. And then, in 1941, we became U.S. citizens by birth. So, if my daughter, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, gives birth in Spain, she would just simply go to the American Embassy and fill out a paper, and that’s it. So, what Congress is saying in this bill is that you need two parents. I would have never thought I would have said — used Ted Cruz as an example of anything but anything that is rotten and not good with people that say that they’re going to serve, but Ted Cruz is a prime example. Ted Cruz, his mother is from the U.S., but he was born in Canada. So his mother went and just wrote him up, and that’s it. So, we want equality under the law, which is an American, very American thing, concept, to treat us the same. We shouldn’t be treated differently when it comes to the U.S. citizenship, which was, again, imposed on Puerto Ricans.

And number three, I also called for the independence aspect of it. The bill says you can be independent if the people choose it. You can draft your own constitution. But here you need to have A, B, C, D or E. And I wish I could see your faces when I say this. Just imagine the Founding Fathers getting a letter from England saying, “All right, you know, you’ve raised enough hell. We’re going to give you your independence, which you have a right to anyway. But, you know, your constitution needs to have A, B, C and D.” It is an unwarranted ask of the United States if Puerto Rico decides to be independent.

So, the things that we want in it is things that are just very simple. One, there should be hearings. A hundred and twenty-four years of colonialism should not be rushed without hearings, hearings that are formal hearings, accessible, in Spanish, with dual translation — because, again, most people in Puerto Rico do not speak English — in a manner that they could understand the technicalities and the phraseology that is used in the bill.

And number three, we want amendments to be allowed. If we’re going to have a nondemocratic process or a nonpreferred process, which is — which was the constitutional assembly, we should, honestly, be able to, on the floor — and then we call on Steny Hoyer to ask the Rules Committee to do this, to allow, allow for just a simple, simple amendment and saying, “Hey, will Puerto Ricans be able to keep their Olympic team?” And then we will just see how everyone votes. And people will be able to vote with the clarity of what each one of the choices means, not only in the present, but in the future, for all of us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Carmen Yulín Cruz, I wanted to ask you, in terms of Raúl Grijalva, who is chair of the Natural Resources Committee and was — has said that there’s been many years and years of hearings on Puerto Rico — he held hearings on the island himself — and that if this Congress is going to act before a new election, this has to — bill has to move forward. Some people say that there is definitely progress. It recognizes that Puerto Rico is currently a colony. It provides for the first time free association as a potential choice. And it commits Congress to abide by whatever the Puerto Rican people decide. So, what do you say to those who say, “Hey, if something is going to happen in this Congress, it needs to happen now”?

CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, there is definitely progress. And I’m the first one to say that Raúl Grijalva, Nydia Velázquez have really pushed this and moved forward. And it is an important thing to move forward. We all have to remember that after Donald Trump’s fiasco and the more than 3,000 deaths after Hurricane Maria because of his lack of interest in saving our lives and his inability to do his job, Puerto Rico became kind of the black eye on America’s face internationally. And after that, Americans and Americans in Congress and all around have been trying to redirect the attention and saying, “No, no, we don’t treat Puerto Ricans anymore like Donald Trump treated them.” Right? We have a saying in Spanish that the disease is not in the pillow, it’s in the person that is diseased. It’s really a bad translation. But La enfermedad no está en la sábana, está en el enfermo.

So, it is a progress, but progress also has to do with the right and the freedom to choose. And the question is: Do you have freedom to choose when all the details are not there; when they’re not telling you exactly what annexation, assimilation and statehood would be like; when the law is not being applied, and free association, and we are being not given the treatment that the rule of law actually allows for all citizens of the U.S.; and when you’re imposing ridiculous aspirations of what the Constitution of a new free country would be?

So, there’s no immediate rush. One of the things that can happen — and, Juan, let me just give you this small correction, if I may. Raúl Grijalva, when I was mayor, held a listening session in San Juan and held another listening session, but a bill, the bill, the actual bill that was submitted, has not been officially transmitted, and there are no — no — actual and — let me say it this way — official — there is no official hearing that took place in Congress. What does that allow? It allows you to have documents on file. For example, the letter to Steny Hoyer that I wrote cannot be on file, because it was a markup hearing. The letter that Melissa Mark-Viverito wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not on file, because of — it was not a hearing.

So, one of the things that we’re asking is, if Congress is going to impose a process, which is this plebiscite, which, grant you, it’s a step forward, but it’s not everything we would have liked — we would have liked a constitutional assembly where all voices could have been heard. But if that is the case, then let us at least have the opportunity right now — Steny Hoyer has that in his power. Just talk to the Rules Committee and say amendments will be allowed, and just have a couple of hearings. And then let’s vote maybe in September, when the Congress reconvenes again. So, there is a little time. I understand the need for this to be solved. What I honestly and many of us do not understand is the rush to do it and, in doing so, not allowing the Puerto Rican people to have all the information to exercise their freedom to choose.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carmen Yulín, we only have about a minute or so left, but I wanted to ask you — while these debates are going on in Washington, there continues to be protest movements in Puerto Rico around the issue of energy and the role of LUMA Energy. We’re heading into another hurricane season. And I’m wondering your thoughts about what is happening in terms of the energy grid in Puerto Rico?

CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Well, LUMA is a disgrace. We have had in Puerto Rico in one year, since LUMA has been here, seven increases on the electrical power. Seven increases. We now pay the most expensive electrical power in all of Puerto Rico. And it’s — I like the word in English, because it’s “power,” right? And we’re talking about the Puerto Rican people are trying to exercise their power to have a governor who’s a DINO — he’s a Democrat in name only. He presents himself as a Democrat in the United States, but, you know, he believes in everything that the Republicans believe, and one of them is privatizing essential services, like LUMA.

So, LUMA must — must — has to go. I opposed it from the beginning. I was called a socialist [inaudible]. Now activists and throngs of people are taking to the [inaudible] the electrical power in Puerto Rico keeps continuously — two, three times a week, we lose electrical power in different areas of Puerto Rico. And as you said, we are in the hurricane season. The grid is still not where it needs to be. This [inaudible]. But the Puerto Rican government gives [inaudible] $750 million [inaudible], $750 million of our budget.

AMY GOODMAN: Carmen Yulín Cruz, we’re losing you, but do you think the contract should be ended with LUMA?

CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Definitely. It should have never begun, and it needs to end now.

AMY GOODMAN: Carmen Yulín Cruz, we want to thank you for being with us, former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico —


AMY GOODMAN: — Weissman fellow at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. And we will also do an interview with Carmen Yulín Cruz in Spanish, and it will appear at en español.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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