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Battle Over Puerto Rico’s Political Future Intensifies

On the eve of the 90th anniversary of Puerto Ricans earning U.S. citizenship, members of the island’s political leadership are intensifying their battle over how best to decide whether Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth, become a state or declare independence.

Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá joined Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) on Tuesday to unveil legislation that would establish a constitutional convention to decide what route the island should take.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock met with Members across the Capitol complex this week to lobby for a bill, sponsored by Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R), that would allow voters to decide in a two-part vote what status they want the island to retain.

But opponents of that measure say it is unfair, as it would first pit commonwealth supporters against those who favor statehood and independence and then force the latter to duke it out in a second vote.

“Congress should not enact legislation that pits two groups against one and then against each other,” Velázquez said at a bilingual news conference, which was broadcast live in Puerto Rico. “It is not the role of this institution to create or encourage clashes of peoples. It is Congress’ responsibility to encourage dialogue, consensus and civility.”

Friday is the anniversary of the signing of the Jones-Shafroth Act, which gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship in 1917 after nearly two decades of American rule. Since that time, Puerto Ricans have debated what their unique status means and whether to keep it.

The measure introduced Tuesday, titled the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2007, is similar to a bill in the 109th Congress that would allow Puerto Ricans to send democratically elected delegates to a convention to hash out which status the island should maintain.

Those delegates would then present their proposal to Puerto Rican voters, who would decide whether to ratify it. If it passes, Congress would then need to approve it. If Congress modifies the proposal, Puerto Rican voters would have to approve those changes.

This bill differs from the one introduced in the previous session in that people who were born in Puerto Rico — or whose parents were born there — and now live on the U.S. mainland could take part in the process.

“This truly allows people to participate,” Gutierrez said, adding that many Americans born on the mainland identify closely with the island because of their parents.

“On my birth certificate, it says ‘Puerto Rico’ more times than it says ‘Chicago,’” Gutierrez added.

Acevedo Vilá, who supports commonwealth status for the island, maintained that a constitutional convention would settle the debate in an appropriate way, because it would be done out in the open and allow all sides to be heard at once.

“This is not a bill where Congress is telling the people of Puerto Rico, ‘This is what you have to decide, and this is how you have to do it,’” said the governor, who was Fortuño’s predecessor as resident commissioner.

Acevedo Vilá added that Puerto Rico’s support for a constitutional convention has grown steadily in the past five years.

But McClintock, a longtime statehood proponent, said a constitutional convention would take the decision out of the hands of the Puerto Rican people, who would only get to vote on a proposal rather than decide what to do next.

“That is not democracy. You’re letting others decide for me,” he said.

The McClintock-backed measure, introduced on Feb. 7 and sponsored by Fortuño and Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), is based on a December 2005 report by a special White House task force formed to study the governance of Puerto Rico.

In that legislation, Puerto Ricans would decide in two parts how they want to move forward.

First, they would vote whether to maintain the status quo as a commonwealth. If they decide to ditch their current status, a second vote would take place, prompting Puerto Ricans to choose statehood or independence.

“If you believe the people should decide their own future, you have to be for H.R. 900,” McClintock said, referring to the bill.

McClintock is not shy about his support of moving to statehood. If the island were to become a state, not only would it gain political power in the form of two Senators and six or seven House Members, but the economy would explode, he said.

American investors would no longer see Puerto Rico as foreign territory but rather as an untapped U.S. resource, McClintock said, similar to what happened in Hawaii once it became a state.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the McClintock-backed measure had a bipartisan group of 94 co-sponsors, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Reps. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman and ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, respectively, where the bill was sent.

But Acevedo Vilá said an array of Democratic leaders have pledged to support his measure, including Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich.), Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (Minn.) and Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (N.Y.).

In a sign of just how confusing the island’s politics can become, McClintock and Fortuño are allies on the subject of statehood, even though Fortuño is the first resident commissioner to caucus with House Republicans while McClintock is a member of the Democratic National Committee. Acevedo Vilá, meanwhile, caucused with the Democrats when he served on Capitol Hill.