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What is the Puerto Rico independence bill and what would it mean?

US territory in Caribbean could at last be offered referendum on its status

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 15 December 2022 22:28 GMT
House to Vote on Historic Puerto Rico Status Act
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The House of Representatives approved the Puerto Rico Status Act on Thursday, a new bill that proposes to grant the Caribbean island’s residents a binding referendum on whether it becomes an American state, an independent nation or a sovereignty associated with the US.

Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898 and its 3.2 million residents are American citizens but are not entitled to vote in presidential elections, do not pay federal income tax on money earned on the island and are not eligible for some federal programs, a state of play that has long been contentious.

The bill, known as HR 8393, was co-sponsored by New York Democrat Nydia Velasquez and Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon and was first approved by the House Natural Resources Committee in July.

“After 124 years of colonialism Puerto Ricans deserve a fair, transparent, and democratic process to finally solve the status question,” Ms Velasquez tweeted on Wednesday after the House vote was announced.

Outgoing House majority leader Steny Hoyer has also championed the bill and said: “This historic legislation will grant Puerto Ricans the self-determination they deserve and allow them determine the future of their island themselves.”

After passing the House on Thursday, the legislation would need at least 60 votes in the Senate – a huge ask – before it can be placed on the Resolute Desk for Joe Biden’s signature.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget issued a statement on Thursday in which it expressed its support for the bill, stating: “For far too long, the residents of Puerto Rico – over 3 million US citizens – have been deprived of the opportunity to determine their own political future and have not received the full rights and benefits of their citizenship because they reside in a US territory.

“HR 8393 would take a historic step towards righting this wrong by establishing a process to ascertain the will of the voters of Puerto Rico regarding three constitutional options for non-territorial status: statehood, independence and sovereignty in free association with the United States.

“The administration looks forward to working with Congress throughout the legislative process to ensure that this bill comports with our nation’s democratic principles. The president calls on Congress to act swiftly to put the future of Puerto Rico’s political status in the hands of Puerto Ricans, where it belongs.”

However, time is running out given that lawmakers already face a stacked legislative agenda before breaking for the Christmas holidays on Friday 23 December, after which a new Republican-controlled House will be sworn in on Tuesday 3 January and any outstanding business will have to start over.

“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. I want to do the right thing,” Mr Hoyer insisted to reporters on Tuesday, shrugging off suggestions that a winning House vote could prove to be little more than a symbolic victory for the Puerto Rican independence movement.

Controversy has erupted over the bill in recent weeks after a row broke out between New York Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ms Gonzalez-Colon after the former proposed amendments.

“We arrived at agreements, and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t respect or validate those agreements, after having been there for two press conferences — I think that’s an intention to water down the project so nothing is passed,” Ms Gonzalez-Colon told The Hill.

“It’s sad for a person who lives in New York, who doesn’t live in Puerto Rico, keeps in suspense 3.2 million US citizens who live on the island, in a permanent colony.”

The representative reacted angrily on Twitter, telling the resident commissioner: “If she has something real to say she can tell me in person… Until then, I will treat this commentary for what it is: deeply unserious.”

The bill has also been criticised for lacking fine detail on a number of issues, such as whether Spanish or English should be the official language of business in Puerto Rican courts and schools if statehood were to win.

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