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Effects of Territorial Status on Puerto Rico’s Revival

The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on how the Biden Build Back Better plan will affect U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. Governor Pedro Pierluisi provided testimony on the circumstances faced by the territory, explaining that the territorial status of the Island has affected its success, and will continue to do so.

Beginning at about 24 minutes into the video, Pierluisi brought up the question of Puerto Rico’s territorial status.

“Moving forward to a future of renewal and respect is not wholly possible without addressing the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status, which has been debated for over a century,” he said. “Even if Puerto Rico were given state-like treatment in all federal programs, it would fall short. The American citizens of Puerto Rico deserve equal political rights as well, representation in Congress and the right to vote for our President and Vice President.”

Pierluisi reminded the committee that Puerto Rico had voted for statehood.

“This past November 3, in a straightforward Yes or No vote, a clear majority of Puerto Rico’s voters declared, in no uncertain terms, that they want equality and no longer consent to being second class citizens. Fifty-two and a half (52.5%) percent out of the islands’ 1.2 million voters chose statehood as the best option to solve Puerto Rico’s status issue,” he said. “To ignore the plebiscite results is undemocratic and un-American. It is time for Congress to act on the moral and political imperative conveyed by our clear message…This is not the time to be talking about other options and convoluted processes mandated by Congress. The American citizens of Puerto Rico already chose their preferred process for self-determination. I respect those who advocate for other status options, but the Puerto Rican people made a clear, democratic choice expressing that statehood is their preferred path forward. Today, there can be no doubt about where the majority of the American citizens of Puerto Rico stand. It is Congress’s responsibility to respond to that vote.”

Response to concerns

Pierluisi recognized the controversy about the November vote.

“Everyone was able to express themselves. Those who want equality under the American flag voted Yes. All those who oppose statehood, for any reason, voted No. Our people said yes to joining the Union on the same terms as their fellow citizens in the States. We had the courage to hold an up or down vote on statehood, and the people chose statehood. Now we reassert that courage by asking Congress to offer statehood to the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”

Pierluisi specifically mentioned HR 2070, a counterproposal to the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act which seeks to end the territorial status through a status convention.

“Proposals for a new process to resolve the islands’ status, because some didn’t like the result, show a lack of respect to the people’s vote,” he said. “I hear some say that we need consensus. Those of us who want equality can never consent to discrimination and unequal treatment. There can never be consensus for second class citizenship. The majority rules in our democratic system. And the majority in Puerto Rico wants statehood. It is up to Congress now to show the world that the democratic principles of equality apply to all American citizens. Puerto Ricans have earned it and we will fight for it until we achieve it.”

Difference if Puerto Rico were a State

Ruben Gallego asked what would have been different for Puerto Rico if Puerto Rico had been a State.

Governor Pierluisi explained that the funds which had been allocated had not been fully dispersed, but said he was “working closely with the Biden administration” and thanked them for making funds available to implement planned revitalization projects.

Describing the difference between accomplishing this as a territory and as a State, Pierluisi spoke again about the limitations of territorial status.

“We have a great Resident Commissioner on the Hill, but as you all know, she doesn’t have a vote on the floor and she is only one. It’s just common sense that if we had two senators and four representatives in the House batting for Puerto Rico, we would not have faced all these onerous requirements we have faced.”

The governor spoke about the problems with red tape that interfered with implementation of rebuilding plans. The Government Accounting Office reported in 2019 that Puerto Rico’s ability to access and use federal disaster funds was limited by the administration’s attitude toward Puerto Rico. FEMA, they explained, that FEMA “instituted a manual reimbursement process for subrecipients in Puerto Rico for federal funds, including Public Assistance funds, to mitigate fiduciary risk and decrease the risk of misuse of funds. Specifically, FEMA officials stated that they decided to institute this process because the government of Puerto Rico had expended funds prior to submitting complete documentation of work performed. According to FEMA officials, they also decided to institute the manual reimbursement process due to Puerto Rico’s financial situation.”

Pierluisi referenced this problem.

“There was all this talk about corruption to justify the different requirements on Puerto Rico, and there’s no basis for that,” he said. He then pointed out that the only actual case of corruption identified was a federal, rather than a local problem. With a State’s representation and the constitutional requirement to treat States equally, Pierluisi explained, Puerto Rico would have been in a different position.

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