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Puerto Rico the 'American Way'

Puerto Rico the 'American Way'
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In the column published in The Hill over the weekend, “Statehood for Puerto Rico and Obstruction of Justice”, the author implies that the statehood option for Puerto Rico is falling victim to a bipartisan conspiracy that perpetuates an injustice.  Before the reader can ponder this hypothesis, the column pivots to the political intrigue that drives the status question, “Should Puerto Rico be admitted into the Union as a state?” The “American Way” values fair play and justice; Puerto Rico deserves nothing less.

Perhaps because there are valid frustrations on how the future path for Puerto Rico has been addressed in recent decades, the aforementioned article does not have a high regard for the self-determination process for Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, it is in fact the most transparent, fair and democratic path to a very complicated issue. This debate may be summarized in two parts: First, what should Puerto Rico become? Second, who should decide the answer to that question — the people or the U.S. government?

The questions, while straightforward, continue to challenge and exasperate policy leaders and the people they represent in Washington, D.C., and in San Juan. Still, a process that allows the people in Puerto Rico to explore options that can be negotiated with Congress, the president and with the American people is the civil, orderly and just path to find the solutions to those questions. 

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Some say that after more than a century, the time to debate is over. Maybe so, if consensus on a path forward had been reached by the people in Puerto Rico. The comparison is often made between Puerto Rico’s efforts with those of the Washington, D.C., statehood movement. The main flaw in this comparison is that the residents of Washington do not question the validity or overall unity of support for statehood, whereas that is not the case in Puerto Rico. 

I can appreciate the frustration of those who continue discussing the two plebiscites referred to in the article in which statehood was deemed victorious by its supporters. The debates about the legitimacy of those processes in Puerto Rico and in Congress are equivalent to philosophical questions such as, “if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If the statehood vote in November is not deemed legitimate by stakeholders in Puerto Rico and Washington, is it valid? Would anyone care? Better start anew the right, fair way.

For a self-determination option to be considered legitimate, it must follow a fair and transparent process. The relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. is too complicated to be resolved in a “yes” or “no” vote, without context, without discussion and no explanations. A status convention, with delegates debating options, reaching majority for proposals, would be a fair and balanced process. Because the legitimacy of a democratic government is based on the consent of the people, clearly a process that will determine the future relationship for the island deserves the consent, approval and support of its citizens. 

Maybe the focus in the next few months should be about how to get the immediate help Puerto Rico needs instead of a toothless yes/no plebiscite. As the election approaches, federal candidates can educate their potential voters of Puerto Rican descent across the 50 states on what they propose to do to help. Maybe voters can ask candidates their thoughts about the following:

First, Will Congress create a time-limited select committee on Puerto Rico? This  select committee could propose legislation and efficiently address Puerto Rico’s structural failings and mend the health, economic and social disparities that have resulted from the unequal treatment of federal statutes? 

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Second, Could the select committee serve as the primary committee to evaluate a transparent, fair status option petition from Puerto Rico and propose legislation for Congressional approval of said process? 

Third, Would the president — through a new executive order — instruct a comprehensive revision of federal policy on the administrative treatment of Puerto Rico in order to address historical disparities promulgated through regulations? 

Puerto Rican residents in the island must determine who the best leaders are for these times. Puerto Ricans living in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Texas and across the country also have a role and should ask candidates how they are ready to support Puerto Rico. Local and federal leaders working together — that would be a great example of our democratic process, our “American Way” in action. 

Max J. Trujillo is president of MJTPOLICY LLC, a government relations consulting firm, and is a former senior policy advisor for Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.).