Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government, Pedro Pierluisi, made a very personal speech to the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida last week. The territory’s statehood party leader and top vote-getter in the last election spoke as a Puerto Rican to fellow Puerto Ricans, as a lawyer to fellow lawyers, and as the parent of a son and a daughter who went to college in Florida.
In all those roles, the territory’s ‘resident commissioner’ understood how Puerto Ricans could find themselves living permanently in the States. he recognized that, “you, or previous generations of your family, relocated to the States to find better educational and economic opportunities. I imagine that the decision to leave Puerto Rico was difficult and even heartbreaking, but that you—or your parents or grandparents—simply felt that there was no other choice.
“The fact that you moved makes me sad but not angry,” Pierluisi continued. “Life is precious; as human beings, we will go where we believe we have the best chance to achieve our dreams.”
Pierluisi acknowledged that Puerto Rico suffers from severe economic problems and has done so for some time. He admitted that the problems are getting worse. “Puerto Rico’s longstanding economic model,” he said, “which has essentially been to offer generous tax breaks to large multinational corporations to encourage them to invest in the island, has not delivered the desired results for the Puerto Rican people.”
Puerto Rico’s tax breaks have saved companies like Microsoft billions of dollars, while these companies employ a relatively small number of people in the territory — not enough to make a real dent in Puerto Rico’s persistent unemployment problem, nor to provide enough funds needed to operate government, improve infrastructure, nor to combat violent crime due to drug trafficking through the the U.S.’ Caribbean border.
As a result, Pierluisi continued, people are leaving Puerto Rico. The continuing dramatic exodus from the island proves, he said, that Puerto Rico needs a new direction.
“Legally and practically,” he said, “there are only two alternatives to the current territory status.”
These two options are statehood and nationhood.
Pierluisi compared the position of States to that of territories, pointing out that a territory does not have the same powers that a State does.
“The irony,” he continued, “is that as soon as my constituents move from the municipality of Florida, Puerto Rico to the State of Florida, they instantly acquire the right to vote for their national leaders and the right to equal treatment under Federal law.”
Pierluisi explained that, while both nationhood and statehood would provide equal rights for the people of Puerto Rico, nationhood would bring grave economic consequences to an already economically troubled Puerto Rico. He explained:
And let’s be honest. An overwhelming majority of my constituents cherish their American citizenship, especially the hundreds of thousands who have served—or have a family member who served—in the military. But if Puerto Rico were to become a country, future generations of island residents would be citizens of the nation of Puerto Rico, not the United States.
Pierluisi reminded his listeners that 61% of the votes cast for an alternative to territory status in November, 2012, favored statehood. He then summarized the legislation on the subject currently under consideration in Congress.
The speech concluded stirringly:
I believe that the quest for Puerto Rico statehood is a fight for civil rights and human dignity. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stand for the principle that “all men are created equal” and that there is no such thing as second-class citizenship in this country. This nation fought a war with itself to vindicate that principle. Later generations, including women and African Americans, had to struggle and sacrifice to become full and equal members of the American family. Like these earlier movements, the statehood movement is driven by the desire to perfect our Union. With discipline and faith, I am confident we will prevail. Cuento con su apoyo.