WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday that would allow Puerto Rico to first binding referendum whether to become a state or gain some sort of independence in a last-ditch effort that has little chance of passing the Senate.
The law, passed between 233 and 191 with some Republican support, would give voters on U.S. territory three options: statehood, independence, or independence with free association.
“To me, it is critical that any proposal in Congress to decolonize Puerto Rico is informed and guided by Puerto Ricans,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the affairs monitored in the US territories.
The proposal would oblige Congress to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state to the United States if voters on the island agree to it. Voters could also opt for full independence or independence with free association, the terms of which would be determined after negotiations over foreign policy, US citizenship, and the use of the US dollar.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who has worked on the issue throughout his career, said it has been “a long and arduous journey” to get the proposal to the House level.
“For far too long, the people of Puerto Rico have been excluded from the full promise of American democracy and self-determination that our nation has always championed,” said the Maryland Democrat.
After passing the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, the bill now heads to a divided Senate, where before the end of the year it faces a ticking clock and Republican lawmakers who have long opposed statehood.
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, traveled to Washington to vote. Calling it a historic day, he said the 3.2 million US citizens living on the island do not have equal rights, do not have fair representation in the federal government and cannot vote in general elections.
“It wasn’t an easy fight. We still have a lot to do,” he said. “Our quest to decolonize Puerto Rico is a civil rights issue.”
However, members of his party, including Puerto Rico resident commissioner Jenniffer González, hailed the bill’s approval Response on US territory was largely muted and frustrated as he is expected to be defeated in the Senate.
The proposal for a binding referendum has angered many on an island that has already held seven non-binding referenda on its political status without an overwhelming majority emerging. The last referendum was held in November 2020 with 53% of the vote for statehood and 47% against, with just over half of registered voters taking part.
The proposed mandatory referendum would mark the first time Puerto Rico’s current U.S. Commonwealth status is not included as an option, a blow to the main opposition Popular Democratic Party, which perpetuates the status quo.
Pablo José Hernández Rivera, an attorney in Puerto Rico, said the House’s approval of the bill was “unimportant,” like the approval of previous bills in 1998 and 2010.
“We Puerto Ricans are fed up with the New Progressive Party spending 28 years in Washington spending resources on sterile and undemocratic status projects,” he said.
González, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, praised the law and said it would give the island the self-determination it deserves.
“Many of us disagree about what that future should look like, but we all accept that the decision should be up to the people of Puerto Rico,” she said.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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