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Supporters of Puerto Rico status convention to Hoyer: Our bill or bust

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Supporters of an open-ended Puerto Rico status convention on Tuesday demanded House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) put the kibosh on negotiations he’s led between two camps on the matter and throw his support behind one of the bills. 

Advocates gathered outside the Maryland Democrat’s district office to argue that H.R. 2070, a bill presented by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), is a compromise bill that would allow Puerto Ricans to study their options and choose anything from full independence to statehood.

“We call on Leader Hoyer to show Democrats will abide by President Biden’s commitment to bring together all sides of this debate. That is what H.R. 2070 does and that is the legislation Mr. Hoyer must champion in Congress. H.R. 2070 is the compromise. Period,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, chief policy officer at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

The Puerto Rican diaspora and advocacy groups were joined outside of Hoyer’s office by representatives of Casa, a powerful grassroots immigrant rights organization with strong ties to the Maryland immigrant community.

Velázquez’s bill is in direct competition with a proposal by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.) that favors statehood as a replacement for Puerto Rico’s current territorial status.

“We will not accept a one-sided, exclusionary, special interest driven bill that imposes Congress’ will on Puerto Ricans,” said Mark-Viverito of the Soto-González proposal.

Given the potential for conflict between two of the Democratic Caucus’s most prominent members of Puerto Rican origin – Velázquez was born on the island and Soto is the first Florida representative of Puerto Rican descent – Hoyer quietly inserted himself in the conversation as a mediator between the two bills. 

The negotiations have taken place strictly behind closed doors, presumably to avoid inflaming the passionate convictions that rule over the debate on Puerto Rico’s sovereignty.

“Leader Hoyer continues to work alongside Members of the House Puerto Rican diaspora, Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and others towards agreement on a consensus bill that addresses the status of Puerto Rico. Conversations are ongoing, and Leader Hoyer continues to hope to have a bill ready for the House Floor as soon as possible,” said Margaret Mulkerrin, a spokesperson for Hoyer.  

But Hoyer’s soft touch was derided by the activists outside his office as a lack of transparency.

“Members of Congress should not be working behind closed doors and doing the bidding of conservative special interest money to hijack a fair, inclusive and transparent decolonization process already on the table. Yet, Rep. Hoyer is doing exactly this as Puerto Ricans have repeatedly and massively demonstrated against anti-democratic measures from Washington,” said Erica González, director of the Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition.

The island’s territorial status has been an immutable reality since the 1950s, but Puerto Rico’s two-party system is split along support and opposition for statehood.

A smaller, vocal minority has historically supported independence, a position that’s garnered support over the last decade.

The island’s left-leaning political party has advocated for a hybrid status for decades known as the commonwealth – a designation that allowed Puerto Rico to adopt its own constitution, but that according to the State Department does not confer a sovereign status beyond that of other U.S. territories.

The State Department’s position was bolstered by recent Supreme Court decisions, the territory’s 2016 bankruptcy-like process and federal funding issues related to Hurricane María, cementing the fact that Puerto Rico is constitutionally a territory. 

At the core of the renewed push to revise the island’s status are two groups: those who favor statehood and a coalition of opponents of statehood, proponents of independence and proponents of the commonwealth as a special status.

Proponents of statehood note Puerto Ricans have voted three times since 2012 in favor of statehood, under a variety of political circumstances, in non-binding referendums.

While statehooders view those referendums as a clear indication of popular will, the coalition around Velázquez’s bill has been quick to note their non-binding nature, and has been critical of the conditions in which the referendums were organized.

The disagreement on the referendums is only the tip of the iceberg of differences between the two camps, which include fundamental constitutional arguments on the status options available to a post-territorial Puerto Rico.

Democrats stand to win support of a key demographic both on the island and in states like Florida and New York if they are seen as addressing the island’s key political issue.

But Hoyer’s foray into the debate may not be as quiet as he hoped for.

Mark-Viverito said the advocacy groups will take nothing short of Hoyer’s full support for H.R. 2070, and are ready to take that fight to his district.

“We are continuing to exert our voice. There are people here that are doing work in this district and we’re going to continue to say to Steny Hoyer that that’s what we want,” said Mark-Viverito.

“Until we have an ability to have a conversation directly with him and find out what’s happening, we’re going to continue to organize.”

Tags Darren Soto Joe Biden Puerto Rican commonwealth Puerto Rican statehood Puerto Rican status Steny Hoyer

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