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Summary of Statements during the U.S. Senate Hearing on the Status Plebiscite

Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) began the hearing by stating that it is “clearly time for Puerto Rico to decide what political path it will take.”  He further explained that, “Puerto Rico must either exercise full self government as a sovereign nation, or achieve equality among the States of the Union.”  Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) spoke in favor of self determination for Puerto Rico and acknowledged that the “current status [a territory status known as “Commonwealth”] does not have majority support.”

The first witness was Puerto Rico “Commonwealth” party president and Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla. Gov. Garcia-Padilla’s statement made the following arguments:

  • The plebiscite did not use the name “commonwealth” to describe the current status. Instead, it used the phrase “present form of territorial status.”  [Note: The Federal government considers Puerto Rico to be a territory.]
  • The people who would have liked to vote for an enhanced commonwealth status [a proposal of his party that the Federal government has repeatedly found to be impossible for constitutional and other reasons] did not have that opportunity. The third alternative to the current status on the ballot, “Sovereign Associated Free State,” is a form of nationhood rather than an “enhanced commonwealth” option.

Gov. Garcia argued that many blank ballots on plebiscite questions protested the plebiscite.  He also expressed optimism that an enhanced commonwealth option might be included in the Federally sponsored referendum that President Obama has proposed [although the President’s legislation, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives committee, would not include status proposals that conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S. like his party’s “enhanced commonwealth” proposal.]

Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government, statehood party president Pedro Pierluisi, was the next speaker. Rep. Pierluisi’s statement made the following points:

  • The 2012 plebiscite votes clearly showed that the people of Puerto Rico reject the islands’ current territory status and prefer statehood over the other possible status options.
  • Enhanced commonwealth is unconstitutional, according to determinations by successive Federal administrations and congressional leaders.  So, it cannot be among the options among which Puerto Rican voters can validly choose.
  • The second question of the plebiscite asked which of the three possible alternatives to territory status voters preferred. Of those who chose an option, 61% voted for statehood.  He noted that the votes cast for statehood also totaled more than the votes cast for the current status.

Resident Commissioner Pierluisi further pointed out, as had Chairman Wyden, that the current territory status is not beneficial for Puerto Rico, as it leaves Puerto Ricans without voting representation in their national government, permits discrimination against Puerto Rico, and retards development of Puerto Rico’s economy.

The statement of Ruben Berrios made the following points:

  • The people of Puerto Rico rejected the current status in the plebiscite.
  • The United States will not accept Puerto Rico as a State and cannot continue the current status because it has been rejected already.
  • Independence is thus the only option, and the United States should lay out a transition plan for independence.

Berrios further called for the release from Federal prison of Oscar Lopez Rivera, who committed crimes in the name of independence for Puerto Rico.

Members of the Committee asked questions following the witness statements.

  • The witnesses were asked whether the current territory status should be included on the next plebiscite. Gov. Garcia rejected the terminology and would not answer “Yes” or “No” when repeatedly requested to do so. Res. Comm. Pierluisi and former Senator Berrios said that territory status should not be included, as it has already been rejected.
  • They were later asked whether statehood and sovereignty should be included as “Yes” or “No” questions on the ballot. Gov. Garcia confusingly suggested that would be like racial segregation, Res. Comm. Pierluisi said “Yes,” and Sen. Berrios insisted that no option should be listed unless the Federal government would guarantee that it would accept the results of the vote.
  • The witnesses were asked whether “Sovereign Associated Free State,” in its Spanish translation, might confuse voters because what has been called the present “Commonwealth” in English, the current territory status, is named words in Spanish that translate as Associated Free State. Garcia thought it would; Pierluisi and Berrios thought it would not.
  • Garcia was asked to explain his party’s “enhanced commonwealth” proposal.  He could not. Frustrated senators asked the question several times in different ways, and Garcia’s only answer was to assert that the proposal’s language that would enable Puerto Rico to nullify the application of Federal laws did not mean that.  Instead, it meant that Puerto Rico’s agreement would be required for the application of Federal laws [which effectively means that Puerto Rico would be able to nullify the application of Federal laws]. Berrios termed the “commonwealth” proposal as “juridical hocus pocus.”

Wyden concluded the hearing by encouraging the leaders to agree upon a choice of statehood and nationhood — whether fully independence from or in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.  He noted these were the only options that could resolve Puerto Rico’s status issue.

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