Saying that the people of Puerto Rico displayed a “clear expression” in becoming the 51 state of the Union, pro-statehood governor Ricardo Rosselló explained on Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that he is “asking for action from Congress so that we can resolve the 500-year-old dilemma” of his country, a U.S. territory since 1898 and a former Spanish colony since the 16th century.
The 38-year-old governor, a registered Democrat, was accompanied at the conference by Puerto Rico’s secretary of state Luis Rivera Marín, Jason Emert (who led a delegation of observers at the June 11 plebiscite), Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Florida). Both Young and Soto are members of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which is expected to once again take on the issue of Puerto Rico, now that statehood won 97% of Sunday’s vote—despite a historic low turnout due to a boycott from non-statehood supporters and claims that the vote never won the blessing of the federal government.
“Our expectation is that this issue moves quickly, with the importance it merits,” Rosselló said.
“Territories have all but disappeared in the world,” Rosselló added later. “It was a 19th century construct. It started being eradicated throughout the 20th century, and now, Puerto Rico remains the most populous and largest territory in the world. We have always pointed to this as a civil rights issue. The U.S. citizens that reside in Puerto Rico don’t have the same rights that the U.S. citizens that live anywhere else within the States. It is not a Puerto Rican problem. It is a geographical problem. If a Puerto Rican moves to, say Florida, he or she acquires all of the rights that American citizens have in the States. By the same token, if any U.S. citizen that was born in the States moves to Puerto Rico, they would lose those rights.”
Throughout his remarks, Rosselló stood firm in saying the statehood took 97% of the Sunday vote—a figure roundly criticized by opponents, who are quick to note that around 77% of eligible voters in Puerto Rico chose not to participate in the island’s fifth status plebiscite. They also note that 300,000 fewer people voted for stated in 2017 than they did in 2012.
Those figures didn’t matter to Young, who said that many critics thought Alaska would never become a state in 1959, yet it still did.
“It is time we stop colonizing Puerto Rico,” Young said after Rosselló’s initial comments. “It is time that we recognize 3,500,000 Puerto Rican citizens of America. It is time that the Congress steps up and does their job to take and make the mistake because they have spoken. Overwhelmingly, 97%.”
Young indicated that he and his congressional colleagues will introduce a bill to recognize Puerto Rico as a state, a different message from the one he gave in February of 2016, when he said “there’s no chance in hell” that statehood would pass, when the island was facing a massive debt crisis and needed Congress to pass a bipartisan PROMESA bill last year.
From Feb 2016, Rep. Young said that "there's no chance in hell" that Puerto Rico would become a state. Today in DC, Young changed his mind. pic.twitter.com/qK2nd8avWD
— Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77) June 15, 2017
“To be very frank,” Young said later in the press conference, “I think we have a better chance now than we did six months ago. Because actually the image of Puerto Rico was, very frankly, bankrupt. The plebiscite’s been taken. They want to become a state. And that made me very happy.”
Young also suggested that if Puerto Rico were to become a state, the current PROMESA law and fiscal control board would no longer be needed.
“We only have so much time. And I’m tired of sitting around,” Young said. “I did this in 1996. It’s time where we let the Puerto Ricans become Americans full-scale. I’m not really worried about anybody else.”
Soto, a Florida Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, echoed Young’s comments, saying that he supported statehood for the island.
“Now it’s up to Congress to make their final determination,” Soto said. “Certainly, now that the people of Puerto Rico have decided, we’ll certainly be supporting their entry in the Union as the 51st state.”
Earlier this week, Soto said that we would co-sponsor H.R. 260, also known as the Puerto Rico Admission Act, which Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner Jenniffer González (a Republican and a non-voting member of Congress) submitted in January.
Near the end of the press conference, Rosselló addressed the reports that the Department of Justice, which had not approved the plebiscite’s final voting language, has asked the Puerto Rican government to delay the vote until it could get federal approval and validation.
“This component about waiting time,” Rosselló said. “When Martin Luther King fought for civil rights, when women fought for the right to suffrage, they weren’t waiting for the right time. They thought that the right time was right now. And we need to act in the same way and accordingly. We can’t start thinking about who is where. We need to take action because of the merits of what has occurred in Puerto Rico.”
Before the press conference, Rosselló and González delivered the plebiscite results to the Office of the Clerk of House of Representatives and the Organization of American States (OAS).