Five members of Congress are on a low-key, several-day trip in Puerto Rico.
All Democrats, they include Senators Kirstin Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Representatives John Larson of Connecticut, Nydia Velazquez of New York, and Susan Davis of California.
They are accompanied by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
The three purposes of the trip have connections to the U.S. military. One concerns removal of naval ordnance from publicly accessible areas of the Puerto Rico island municipality of Culebra.
After a shell fell in a public area and Puerto Rican lobbying, Congress in 1973 required the Navy to stop target practice in Culebra. Congress also, however, limited the use of Federal funds for clean-up of ordnance.
A national defense law enacted a few weeks ago included a provision sponsored by Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives, Pedro Pierluisi (statehood/D), to authorize a clean-up. The sole representative of the territory of 3.5 million in the Congress can only vote in committees to which he or she is assigned in the House. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Richard Blumenthal included a related proposal in the United States Senate version of the legislation. Separate legislation enacted last month to fund the federal government includes $17 million for the cleanup of Vieques and $1.4 million for the cleanup of Culebra.
The congressional delegation stayed quite a while on Culebra.
The members of Congress are also inspecting the Martin Pena Channel in San Juan. Its waters are polluted with human and other waste and it needs to be dredged, a project for the Army’s Corps of Engineers. Some 27,000 people live in the area.
The group is, additionally, meeting with members of a former U.S. Army unit comprised of Puerto Ricans, the Borinqueneers.
The one-time 65th Infantry of the Army dates to a unit established by law a year after the U.S. took Puerto Rico from Spain. The segregated unit was deactivated in 1956, with part of its operations transferred to the Army National Guard unit in Puerto Rico.
The 65th Infantry had a particularly distinguished record during the Korean War. It was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal last June through legislation sponsored by Pierluisi and Blumenthal.
Gillibrand, Blumenthal, and Davis are members of Congress’ Armed Services Committees.
Gillibrand also serves on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. The Environmental Protection Agency, which it oversees, is also involved with the Martin Pena Channel and Culebra clean-up issues. She is also on the Senate Agriculture Committee, a post she has used in the past to fight for equal nutrition benefits for Puerto Rico.
Blumenthal is a Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over Department of Veterans Affairs matters and related authority over issues impacting the Borinqueneers.
Larson is a former Chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House and is a member of the Ways and Means Committee that has jurisdiction over most of the relatively few — but important — laws that do not treat Puerto Rico as a State.
Gillibrand, Blumental, Larson, and Velazquez represent many constituents of Puerto Rican origin.
Velazquez was born in Puerto Rico.
So was Mark-Viverito, who encouraged the trip.
Velazquez and Mark-Viverito are opponents of equality for Puerto Rico with the rest of the Nation. Velazquez is, instead, a protege of former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, still the most influential theorist of the territory’s “commonwealth status” party. And Mark-Viverito is a Puerto Rican nationalist.