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Puerto Rico Democratic boss: Party 'cannot support' AOC/Velazquez status bill

Puerto Rico Democratic boss: Party 'cannot support' AOC/Velazquez status bill
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Puerto Rico Democratic Party Chair Charles Rodríguez on Friday called on congressional Democrats to oppose a bill proposed by New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezProgressive lawmakers call for United Nations probe into DHS 'human rights abuses' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats play defense, GOP goes on attack after Biden oil comments | Energy Dept. exempts quick dishwashers from existing efficiency standards | Ocasio-Cortez says having Green New Deal would have helped handle COVID-19 pandemic Ocasio-Cortez says Biden vote can be 'tactical' effort to support marginalized communities MORE to decide the territory's status through a convention.

"The proposed legislation allows a group of delegates to decide and impose an option. In a democracy, we should trust the people to make their own decisions rather than rely on a selected few to decide for the people," wrote Rodríguez.

The Velázquez/Ocasio-Cortez bill has pulled Congress into the island's core political debate, which defines party affiliation at a local level.

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In his letter, Rodríguez lauded the Velázquez/Ocasio-Cortez bill, which has been embraced by the left-leaning Popular Democratic Party, for taking "steps to pursue a resolution to Puerto Rico’s centuries-old colonial problem by introducing legislation that addresses this issue."

"We agree with them that Puerto Rico’s current unequal and undemocratic status is simply unsustainable," wrote Rodríguez.

But Rodríguez panned the core of the proposal, which he said the island's Democrats "cannot
support … as currently drafted."

Rodríguez and the New Progressive Party (PNP), a pro-statehood coalition of moderate Democrats and the island's Republicans, have been especially critical of the proposal's timing, as a yes/no referendum on Puerto Rico statehood will be on November's ballot.

"We urge you to encourage voter participation in the upcoming referendum called by the elected officials on the island who ran on a platform that guaranteed the people their right to vote to determine their future political status," wrote Rodríguez.

"The upcoming referendum will provide a voice to our people and constitutes a valid form of self-determination," he added.

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The November referendum will be the third since 2012. In 2012 and 2017, statehood won by wide margins, but the votes were marred by low participation and a lack of federal endorsement.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced (R) was unable to get the Department of Justice to approve the statehood question on the ballot for 2020. Vázquez Garced will not be on the ballot, after losing the PNP primary to former Resident Commissioner Pedro PierluisiPedro Rafael PierluisiPuerto Ricans voters are key in the Sunshine State Puerto Rico Democratic boss: Party 'cannot support' AOC/Velazquez status bill Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez call for convention to decide Puerto Rico status MORE (D).

Still, a strong showing for statehood could prove difficult for members of Congress — particularly Democrats — to ignore.

Statehood proponents have been on the offensive since 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case known as Sánchez Valle, affirming Puerto Rico's status as a territory under the constitution.

Opponents of statehood for decades had argued in favor of maintaining the "free associated state" — a hybrid sovereign status decried by statehood supporters as a Cold War relic — which lost its appeal after Sánchez Valle.

"It's called a territory but we are a colony. It was named the free associated state, it was falsely alleged at the United Nations that we had autonomy," said Carlos Romero Barceló, one of the founders of the PNP, in a recent interview with The Hill.

Under the Velázquez/Ocasio-Cortez bill, the Status Convention "would develop a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status, be that statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement," wrote the two congresswomen in an essay presenting their plan.

A spokesman for Velázquez was critical of the letter.

“Anyone familiar with Puerto Rican politics knows this letter is just a thinly veiled attempt to myopically push for statehood. The legislation the Congresswoman authored provides an inclusive, truly democratic mechanism for resolving the status issue by allowing delegates duly elected by the Puerto Rican people to formulate a proposal that could then be ratified in a direct election by the Island’s residents. That’s why progressives are rapidly coalescing around the bill to the consternation of those virulently opposed to any approach except statehood,” said a spokesman for Velázquez.

Ocasio-Cortez's office did not immediately return a request for comment on this story.

Rodríguez decried their proposal, saying it would further delay resolution on Puerto Rico's status, and because such a convention could eventually impose a solution only supported by a minority, or maintain the current structure.

"In the end, the proposed bill creates a convoluted process which would ultimately delay a status resolution, as Congress would not have any commitment to act on the results, thus perpetuating current unincorporated territorial status," wrote Rodríguez.

The current status, once defended by its proponents as an appropriate middle ground between sovereignty and political proximity to the United States, has lost its luster as Puerto Rico essentially declared bankruptcy and Congress enforced its sovereignty over the territory's finances in 2016.

But both parties have remained split on Puerto Rico's sovereign status, accusing each other of using the debate as a proxy to gain political power.

Romero Barceló criticized Velázquez for proposing the bill, saying she "intends to put [status] in the hands of a small, select group."

"She has used Puerto Rico to acquire power in Congress," said Romero Barceló. "Nobody votes for her here."

And Romero Barceló said Ocasio-Cortez is "confused," because "she said she believed in the right for equality for all Puerto Ricans."

"The only way equality can be achieved is through statehood," he added.

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But Federico de Jesús, a political consultant and former deputy director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said November's referendum is marred by the current PNP administration's "corruption and mismanagement."

Vázquez Garced became governor in 2019 after the resignation of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) over a series of scandals involving misogynistic language in group chats, and has herself been the subject of corruption allegations.

"Many fear the referendum is a ploy to get the statehood vote out to get the PNP to win," said de Jesús.

"They hope it papers over all of the mismanagement and all of the scandals," he added.