SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hundreds of Puerto Ricans crammed into a convention center on Saturday where federal lawmakers held a public hearing to decide the future of the island’s political status as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from hurricanes, earthquakes and a deep economic crisis. crisis.
One by one, dozens of people ranging from politicians to retirees to young people leaned into a microphone and spoke out against the island’s current territorial status, which recognizes its residents as U.S. citizens but does not allow them to vote in presidential elections, denies them certain federal benefits, and grants them a representative in Congress with limited voting powers.
The hearing comes two weeks after a group of Democratic congressmen, including the House Majority Leader and a Republican, proposed what would be the first-ever binding plebiscite that would give voters in Puerto Rico three options: statehood, independence or independence with free association, the terms of which would be determined through negotiation.
Congress is expected to accept Puerto Rico as the 51st state if voters so choose, but the proposal is unlikely to survive the Senate, where Republicans have long opposed statehood.
“Everyone, even members of Congress themselves, know that the chances of this becoming law are slim and possibly non-existent, but it continues to matter,” the former Porto governor said. Rico Aníbal Acevedo Vilá at The Associated Press.
About an hour into the hearing, a small group of people, including a former gubernatorial candidate who supports independence, burst into the ballroom, pointed at the panel of U.S. lawmakers and shouted, “120 years of colonialism!
The majority of the public booed the group and shouted at them to leave as lawmakers called for calm.
“Democracy isn’t always pretty, but it’s necessary,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees affairs in U.S. territories.
The proposal for a binding plebiscite – a measure yet to be introduced in committee – has frustrated some on an island that has already held seven non-binding unilateral referendums on its political status, with no overwhelming majority emerging. . The last referendum took place in November 2020, with 53% of the vote for the creation of a state and 47% against, with only a little more than half of the registered voters.
The hearing comes amid ongoing dissatisfaction with Puerto Rico’s current political status, with the U.S. Supreme Court sparking further anger in April after upholding the differential treatment of Puerto Rico residents. In an 8-to-1 vote, the court ruled that making Puerto Ricans ineligible for the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides benefits to blind, disabled and elderly Americans, does not unconstitutionally discriminate against them.
As a result, many of those who spoke at Saturday’s public hearing welcomed the proposed binding plebiscite.
“We finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Víctor Pérez, a US military veteran who lamented the current political status. “Even after all our service and sacrifice, we go home and are deprived of full voting rights and equality. … We can’t vote for our president, our commander-in-chief, (but) they send us to war.
Grijalva said the testimony given on Saturday would help him and other lawmakers revise the proposed measure, which he says is a way to make amends. He said he hopes he will be upstairs in the House by August. If finally approved, it will be held on November 5, 2023.
Acevedo, the former governor, said he had not given up hope despite numerous attempts over the decades to change the political status of Puerto Rico, which became a US territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.
“A solution to this 120+ year old problem has to come at some point,” he said. “When will conditions allow it?” It’s unpredictable.
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