- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

During my four years in the House of Representatives, proudly representing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, I learned an important lesson about how Congress functions. “Process” is often just as important as “outcome,” partly because it ensures a legitimate outcome. Now, as the island’s governor, I hear every day from our residents that “process” — and in particular, fair and unbiased process — is critical as we discuss Puerto Rico’s future. With Congress debating Puerto Rico’s status in a Capitol Hill hearing this week, I encourage them to reject legislation that would arbitrarily mandate statehood for Puerto Rico, and instead to support a reasonable system for determining the partnership between the United States and the commonwealth.

For fifty years, the citizens of Puerto Rico have supported our current relationship, voting again and again to continue commonwealth rather than adopt statehood or independence. Puerto Ricans have been empowered to determine their future and have selected between all of the options on the table in each referendum — giving an accurate assessment of the most popular choice of the people.

Statehood has never won majority support in Puerto Rico, so now statehood advocates are taking a new approach. They have created a process to force statehood upon Puerto Rico, even if the island’s citizens still do not want it. In Congress, Rep. Luis Fortuno, Puerto Rico Republican, and Jose Serrano, New York Democrat, have introduced the “Puerto Rico Democracy Act,” H.R. 900, which would use a complex and troubling voting structure to guide the island toward a predetermined outcome.

This statehood bill would utilize a two-stage referendum structure to knock out Commonwealth early on. In the first round, an ill-defined commonwealth category would be pitted against a combined statehood-and-independence category, allowing statehood and independence to merge their votes to build a tiny majority. Then, in the second round, voters would choose between statehood and independence only, with the former the likely winner. At no point could our citizens select their choice from all three options. And in some proposals, there would be no end to the referendum process, with votes held regularly. This would presumably continue until statehood emerges victorious.

That process is wrong — for Puerto Rico and for the United States. Leaders in Washington have lobbied hard for statehood for our nation’s capital. But they enjoy near-universal support from the District’s residents. In Hawaii and Alaska, the two states most recently admitted to the union, public backing for statehood was similarly strong. In neither case did statehood activists need to twist or influence the process, which raises the question of why we would allow that type of distortion to happen to Puerto Rico. It jeopardizes the democratic ideals that are the bedrock of our country and threatens to ignore the will of the people of Puerto Rico.

In response, I have joined with a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders — including fellow Puerto Ricans Rep. Nydia Velazquez, New York Democrat, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, and numerous others including Reps. Donna Christensen, Democratic Delegate from the Virgin Islands, John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, Jim Duncan, Tennessee Republican, Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, James Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, Louise Slaughter, New York Democrat, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, Ohio Democrat and Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican — to develop a proposal that restores power to all Puerto Ricans.

“The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act,” H.R. 1230, gives congressional support for a constitutional convention for Puerto Rico. This gathering would create an unbiased, inclusive discussion on the island’s future, with no predetermined outcome and no attempt to obscure the process. Delegates to the convention would represent each of the status options under consideration and would be tasked with creating the ideal status structure, which would then be presented to Puerto Ricans for deliberation and a vote of support.

A critical element of this plan is the inclusion of Puerto Rican residents from the U.S. mainland. Regardless of our mailing address, we are all Puertorriquenos — with the flags we wave, the bumper stickers on our cars and sense of pride when we talk about the island serving as a testament to our ongoing connection to Puerto Rico. Whether they come from New York or Bayamon, Orlando or San Juan, the constitutional-convention proposal focuses on including all voices, rather than eliminating some opinions in the quest for a certain outcome.

In every discussion of Puerto Rico’s status, opinions are firmly held, and often are a key part of our identity. Yet personal preferences should never trump our American values. Our right to self-determination is treasured, and our support for a democratic process to express that self-determination is critically important. As Congress considers Puerto Rico’s future, I encourage them, to insist upon mechanisms that will not force statehood upon unwilling citizens, and instead to support a process that will provide productive, valid answers.

Anibal Acevedo Vila is the governor of Puerto Rico and a former congressional delegate.

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