Despite not securing any specific commitments from Congressional leaders and the White House to act on the future results of Puerto Rico’s June 11 status plebiscite vote, two of the island’s top statehood advocates believe that the federal government must honor the upcoming referendum, especially if Puerto Ricans were to pick statehood over independence or the current commonwealth status.
“President Trump, when he was making his campaign in the presidential primary, if the people of Puerto Rico choose for statehood and if he became the President, at the time that he was running for President, he would honor that question,” Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, a non-voting Republican member of Congress, said Thursday afternoon at a press conference she had in Washington, D.C., with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, a pro-statehood Democrat, and Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, a pro-statehood Republican.
González was referring to a 2016 campaign statement Trump shared about Puerto Rico’s status.
The Trump statement does not goes as far as the GOP’s 2016 platform position about Puerto Rico, which says that the Republican Party supports “the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state.”
However, even though the GOP platform advocates for Puerto Rican statehood, when asked if the Puerto Rican government was able to get specific commitments from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or the Trump Administration to respect the outcome of the June 11 vote, Rosselló said that visit to Washington this time was not about “asking for a blessing, but informing the members of Congress that we the people of Puerto Rico are taking action, that we have a plebiscite that is consistent with what the Department of Justice has established, and that we expect results and movements right after 3.5 million U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico have taken action.”
— Jenniffer González (@RepJenniffer) May 25, 2017
On June 11, Puerto Ricans on the island will once again go to the polls to express their preference for how to forge a future political relationship with the United States. Like previous plebiscites, the 2017 results will be non-binding, meaning that U.S. government is not obligated to act on any results for a territory it has held since 1898. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and those Puerto Ricans who live on the island do not have representation in Congress. They also cannot vote for President, although they have a long history of service in the U.S. armed forces.
“Our people are deployed two and three times more than the rest of the nation, and we are proud to do that,” González said. “But it’s time also to be recognized… the people of Puerto Rico voted in the 2012 plebiscite, and 61% voted for statehood. What’s happening? We are U.S. citizens. We are moving to the states just by buying a ticket. We want to have the same opportunities, but stay on the island. And that’s the choice we want to have in June 11.”
“So this is a real process, important for the people of Puerto Rico, important for our determination,” Rosselló said at one point during the press conference, “and the results should spark, should incite movement in the federal government, should spark conversation amongst our whole nation, saying, asking ourselves the question, if in the 21st century, the country that is the standard-bearer for democracy and liberty, still holds the oldest and most populated colonial territory in the world, if that is consistent?”
In 2012, Puerto Ricans voted on a two-part plebiscite—54% of voters (more than 938,000 votes) rejected the island’s current territorial status in the first part, while in the second part, 61% of voters (more than 802,000 voters) chose statehood. However, political differences and bickering between the island’s statehood and commonwealth parties led to partisan disputes about the results, causing the Obama White House to call for another plebiscite that would use federal funding to educate voters about the process and the territorial options.
In early 2017, Rosselló and his statehood allies pushed for a simplified vote that would offer only two options (statehood or independence), but in April, the Department of Justice intervened and said that the commonwealth option had to be included or it wouldn’t release federal funds to educate voters about the referendum. Although it was a political loss for Rosselló, the Puerto Rican government quickly accepted the DOJ decision, but there has been no confirmation that Congress has approved the language of the plebiscite ballot. Given that Puerto Rico is still reeling from a massive debt crisis, many Puerto Ricans see the June 11 vote as a political distraction and a waste of time.
It is an issue that Rosselló addressed during the press conference.
“I am appalled that any process that is a democratic process would be considered a political exercise,” Rosselló said. “It doesn’t matter where it stems from, if it stems from the people or if it stems from the U.S. citizens that reside in Puerto Rico—it is a valid process. So we can never accept any premise, whereby someone will try to diminish the process for secondary considerations. This is a bill that allows the people of Puerto Rico to vote between the options, including the current territory, as alternatives… all of the options are there, all of the options were the ones that were stipulated from the Department of Justice. So this is a real process, an important process, and I would challenge to see if in any other state, a process like this would ensue, if it would be challenged for any other reason.”
Meanwhile, according to POLITICO, the DOJ said that it “has not reviewed or approved the current ballot language and any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect.”
Rosselló also said that statehood would help with the debt crisis, which has dominated all aspects of Puerto Rican society.
“How does statehood help in all of this? Statehood gives a better platform, gives a more stable platform for growth… allows us the opportunity to have political power, with vote and voice.” Rosselló explained. “It allows us to push forward and to grow bigger, but I want to say something else: it also allows the United States to grow. It also allows the United States… if we are to go to Cuba and to Venezuela to ask for democracy, but we need to take action at home. And if we have 3.5 million U.S. citizens stating that they want a change, that we want statehood, then the United States needs to answer. I see that this would be a beneficial trajectory, a path forward for the United States as well.”
“Puerto Rico is uniquely positioned geographically, culturally… is bilingual in many fronts, and could become that centerpiece of the Americas, where we can get interconnected,” the governor added. “It could be a huge added value for a nation that right now is the third-largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world. And then, as time progresses, that number will be even larger. It is the right time to have the first Hispanic state. And it is the right time for the Latino population to also know that they are going to have two senators and five representatives representing them in that Congress.”
The entire Thursday press conference can be viewed here.