Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Puerto Rican politics

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSanders: Netanyahu has cultivated 'racist nationalism' Meghan McCain: Greene 'behaving like an animal' Deleted video shows Greene taunting Ocasio-Cortez's office in 2019 MORE (D-N.Y.) recently proposed a federally mandated, self-executing, political status referendum in Puerto Rico between the alternatives of statehood and independence. She argued, correctly, that past referendums have not been legally binding and have been no more akin to polls.  Her proposal comes out a couple of weeks after Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Biden calls for path to citizenship for dreamers, farmworkers Harris moves forward with new Central America strategy MORE (D-Fla.) filed his improbable Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act of 2019 bill, which aims to have Puerto Rico admitted as a state within 90 days from its approval.     

Ocasio-Cortez suggestions have been quickly contested by opponents of statehood, some who argue that any self-determination process must be preceded with the cession of sovereignty back to the people of Puerto Rico. This line of argumentation has been a standard trope of pro-independence factions in Puerto Rico, at least since the 1930’s. The latest incarnation of this argument is being promoted by San Juan Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Carmen Yulín Cruz.


According to this political narrative, Puerto Rico is a nation with its own identity, and has been a colony of the United States since the Treaty of Paris of 1898. Accordingly, its right to self-determination is recognized under international law by the United Nations Resolution 1514 of 1960, and that any meaningful decolonization process must begin with the United States divesting itself from Puerto Rico.

It is in this context that the minority pro-independence factions in Puerto Rico have pushed for a sort of “constitutional convention” where the people of Puerto Rico would be represented for purposes of deciding its political future. This proposed convention is nothing more than a Trojan horse designed by a vocal minority to subvert the direct participation of the electorate in the decision-making process.

After 120 years, the Puerto Rican electorate is very clear as to what is status options are: statehood, territory (incorporated o unincorporated), or independence (including free association). Any proposed constitutional convention as an alleged exercise in self-determination —is a preemptive attempt to disengage Congress from its constitutional obligations to the island and block the growing call for statehood.

How we frame the question of Puerto Rico’s political relationship to the United States, either under the Constitution or under international law, is a matter of one’s political persuasion. It is understandable why those that favor independence prefer to characterize our political relationship as colonial and try to drive a wedge between Puerto Rico and the United States. For this electoral minority, the politics of identity is a matter of collective sovereignty at the expense of the individual rights of the American citizens in Puerto Rico.

For the immense majority of Puerto Ricans however, there is no contradiction with being a part of the American polity. Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917 and have fought and died in all wars since World War I, and more than half of the population has made their lives in the mainland. Our modern history is inextricably intertwined with the United States. A referendum between the alternatives of statehood and independence would clarify any cultivated misunderstandings on where Puerto Rican political loyalties lie.

Real movement in addressing Puerto Rico’s status question must initiate in Congress, and a federally mandated referendum is a good place to start.  Legislation in 2014 allocated $2.5 million for a referendum and needs to be kept in mind.  Under this law, a referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status has been authorized and is still valid.


In the challenged 2017 referendum, in which 97 percent of the voters favored statehood, attempted to obtain the prior approval of the Department of Justice but was short-circuited by department leadership. Current Attorney General William BarrBill BarrSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Lawyer for former officer charged in George Floyd death alleges witness coercion CNN legal analyst joins DOJ's national security division MORE and the dysfunctional Trump administration do not inspire any more confidence.  Many in Congress like to point out that only 23 percent of the registered electorate participated in the 2017 referendum, which they conveniently use as a pretext for legislative inaction. Although from a strictly legal perspective the result of a referendum would not be binding or self-executing.

Ocasio-Cortez statements recognizing Puerto Rico’s political status question as civil rights issue and her call for a federally mandated referendum is a welcome addition to the public discussion on the matter and should be given serious thought by all members in the House and should warrant a hearing as soon as possible to seriously discuss Puerto Rico’s political future.

Andrés L. Córdova is a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, where he teaches contracts and property courses. He is also an occasional columnist on legal and political issues at the Spanish daily El Vocero de Puerto Rico.