Congress tackles issue of Puerto Rico’s status

Washington – For the first time since the Republican Party took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, Congress will hold a hearing on Puerto Rico’s status.

Wednesday’s hearing, featuring witnesses representing all of Puerto Rico’s political parties, has been scheduled by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the head of the House natural resources subcommittee. It has authority over the five U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. In addition to considering the island’s identity as a geo-political unit, the hearing will also focus on Puerto Rico’s severe economic problems.

Young has long favored granting statehood to Puerto Rico and cosponsored legislation proposed by Resident Commisioner Pedro Pierluisi that would require a vote on the island within one year on the statehood question.

While there are about 3.7 million Puerto Ricans still living on the island, there are 4.6 million living in the United States. And the concentration of Puerto Ricans is higher in Connecticut than in any other state. According to the 2010 census, 7.1 percent of Connecticut’s population is Puerto Rican, followed by New York (5.5 percent) and New Jersey (4.9 percent).

Charles Venator-Santiago, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut who is also with the school’s Institute for Latino Studies, said the hearing is likely to produce more smoke than fire because the GOP-controlled Congress does not favor giving Puerto Rico a chance at statehood.

“It doesn’t make sense from a congressional standpoint,” Venator-Santiago said of Young’s effort. “Can you imagine a Republican Congress granting Puerto Rico statehood  status?”

Granting Puerto Rico statehood would give the island two U.S.senators and five members of the House of Representatives — the same representation as Connecticut, which has a similar population.

And, like Connecticut, those new members of Congress would probably be Democrats, Venator-Santiago said.

The GOP would not accept an increase in the number of Democrats in Congress, and redistricting to create those new seats could result in a loss of seats in red states like Texas.

Puerto Rico’s political parties reflect the divergent views of the residents on the island’s status. Pierluisi’s New Progressive Party favors statehood. The Popular Democratic Party favors keeping Puerto Rico a territory, and the Puerto Rico Independence Party, naturally, favors independence.

Venator-Santiago said he favors independence too, but realizes he’s in a minority.

He said most Puerto Ricans favor the status quo. But that was difficult to determine from a referendum on the issue held on the island in 2012.

The referendum asked voters whether they agreed to continue with Puerto Rico’s territorial status. It also asked voters to indicate the political status they preferred from three possibilities: statehood, independence, or a sovereign nation in free association with the United States.

About 54 percent voted “no” on continuing as a territory and 46 percent voted “yes,” to maintain the current political status. Of those who answered on the second question, about 61 percent chose statehood, 33 percent chose free association, and 5.5 percent chose independence.

But leaders of the Popular Democratic Party who favor the status quo recommended voting “yes” to the first question, and leaving the second question blank as a protest to what they called “an anti-democratic process.” The large number of blank ballots make the referendum meaningless, they said.

Yanil Terón, executive director for the Center For Latino Progress, also said the referendum was flawed.

However, she says there should be new attempts to determine what status for the island the people of Puerto Rico want to end “the constant bickering” that impedes political and economic progress. Terón was born in Puerto Rico, but has lived in the United States for more than 30 years.

“I appreciate that Congressman Don Yong is holding the hearing, but I don’t think there is support in Congress for statehood,” she said.

Questions have arisen over Young’s motivations. Politico was the first to report that Young attended a fundraiser hosted for him in San Juan, P.R., by Igualdad Futuro Seguro, a pro-statehood political action committee just a few days before Wednesday’s hearing.

Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said the congressman’s experience representing Alaska, which was a U.S territory before it became the nation’s 49th state, gives him a unique perspective on Puerto Rico’s situation.

“It has been four years since the House Natural Resources Committee has given the people of Puerto Rico an opportunity to discuss this very important issue, and the upcoming oversight hearing has been a priority for the congressman…,” he said.

The hearing comes at a time when the island’s governing officials are in a rush to complete the territory’s 2016 budget by June 30.

Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who will not testify at Young’ hearing, has said he has considered asking Congress to allow the territory to declare bankruptcy as it faces $72 billion in public debt.

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