Chair Grijalva Should Lead on Self-Determination for Puerto Rico
Updated: May 3
Originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on May 1st.
The Congressional hearings held on April 14th on the dueling bills to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status, chaired by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, clearly showed one thing: the question of Puerto Rico's future deserves a more serious deliberative process than it will get in the rancorously partisan U.S. Congress.
Although many Puerto Ricans applaud Chair Grijalva’s approach to restarting a long-overdue discussion on Puerto Rico’s territorial status, the American people need to to understand why the island nation is very different from any other jurisdiction in the body politic of the United States.
Proponents of statehood for Puerto Rico claim that resolving the status issue is simply a matter of extending political rights to disenfranchised American citizens. But Puerto Rico is a Caribbean and Latin American nation that has been subjugated by two consecutive overseas empires: Spain and the United States. Despite more than 120 years of U.S. rule, Puerto Rico is still very much Puerto Rican, defined by a unique identity, our Spanish language, and cultural idiosyncrasies. We have a proud diaspora that regards our island nation — not the United States — as our homeland.
In defense of our identity, and of our right to national sovereignty, Puerto Rico has had an active independence movement that predates the U.S. invasion in 1898, which has been pivotal in securing many civil, environmental, and labor rights from both Spanish and American colonial governments. For instance, the independence movement played a pivotal role in expelling the U.S. Navy from Culebra in the 1970s and Vieques in the early 2000s (where it practiced with depleted uranium bombs and exponentially increased cancer rates among residents) . Puerto Rico’s independence movement has also been subjected to a decades-long campaign of surveillance and persecution by the FBI, which has everything to do with why the media has pushed the Puerto Rican statehood narrative but has almost completely ignored the historic and militant Puerto Rican independence movement.
Because of this undeniable history, Congress must approach the Puerto Rican question as not simply a matter of enfranchising second-class American citizens, but as a matter of rectifying a colonial relationship between two distinct nations. To focus on the former, as statehood advocates do, instead of the latter, is to effectively erase our identity as Puerto Ricans who have, even after the imposition of U.S. citizenship a century ago, remained both a proud nation, and U.S. colonial subjects.
This is why the Statehood Admission Act (H.R. 1522) is the wrong path for Puerto Rico. It ignores questions of nationality, U.S. foreign intervention, and colonialism. Like Britain, France, and Belgium did in the last century, it is time for the United States to take a deep look at its core national values, to recognize that Puerto Ricans remain a distinct people, and to consider whether annexing a nation they invaded and have kept under a regime of political subjugation is a just outcome.
There is another way forward: the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act (H.R. 2070) presented by two Puerto Rican Congresswomen, Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It outlines a process in which Puerto Ricans would elect local delegates, discuss legitimate decolonization options, and negotiate transition plans with a Congressional commission. That’s a far superior process than only relying on the results of a single plebiscite, which merely reflects preferences produced by our colonial history—and which is bound to be ignored by Republicans in Congress who strongly oppose statehood.
Rep. Grijalva and Congress should move forward with the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. Together, as Americans and Puerto Ricans, we can work towards ensuring that Puerto Rico has the process it deserves after 123 years of shameful colonial rule.