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Fernandez '21: Puerto Rico Self Determination Act: A Step Towards Liberation

This week marked three years since Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It is a moment during which painful memories of collective trauma flood the minds of many Puerto Ricans, demanding that communities meaningfully reflect on where they are now and how they got there. 

Over the last three years, we have seen historic moments of solidarity and action that have sparked genuine hope for radical political change that would provide effective relief efforts, amongst other urgent needs. However, this week I am reminded that Puerto Ricans will not see truly meaningful change until its persisting colonial status is dismantled – an ideal that the average Puerto Rican has long been taught to consider impossible by the actors behind the colonial project. It was in the midst of this disheartening reminder that I encountered the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act of 2020, introduced to Congress on August 25. While the Act is flawed in important ways, its introduction sparks an essential conversation on the importance of radically redefining Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States and what is politically imaginable for Puerto Rico and its people, who have been fighting for liberation from colonial rule (under the United States and Spain) for centuries. 

Since 2017, Puerto Rico has found itself struggling to survive amidst multiple and simultaneous crises, ranging from economic disaster and political corruption to the failed reconstruction after not only Hurricane María, but also the devastating 2020 earthquakes that destroyed homes and livelihoods. Today, Puerto Rico, like the rest of the world, struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, an endeavor made complicated by the lack of political and economic autonomy that restricts the island’s ability to take essential steps like provide support for its businesses and close its borders. Moreover, Puerto Rico is in the midst of its election season in which the island’s people will finally get to choose who will succeed former Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who was forced to resign by the historic social movement that took place in 2019. We are seeing a Puerto Rican public more politically activated than any I’ve seen in my lifetime, certainly driven by the political momentum gained in 2019 and by the incredible stakes created by this series of crises. However, regardless of my excitement around the upcoming election, I understand that the root of Puerto Rico’s state of emergency cannot be addressed entirely through internal politics on the island. It is here that I turn to the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act of 2020. 

The Act was introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (NY-7) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14). The bill intends “to recognize the right of the People of Puerto Rico to call a Status Convention through which the people would exercise their natural right to self-determination.” Puerto Rico and the U.S. Congress have toyed with similar proposals for decades, but the introduction of this act is a significant moment of tangible action. A Status Convention would allow Puerto Rican residents to elect delegates who would develop a proposal for changing the current Commonwealth Status of Puerto Rico, which would be submitted first to the Puerto Rican people for ratification and then to Congress for approval. 

This has been presented as an alternative to the referendum proposal that has dominated the question of Puerto Rico’s status for recent years, in which Puerto Ricans are asked to vote on a limited set of status options in non-binding elections. There is another referendum set to take place this November in which Puerto Ricans will be asked to vote “Yes” or “No” on the question “Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?” The referendum process is nonsensical in many ways. These electoral exercises have been plagued by corruption and low voter participation, they exclude alternative options – namely, independence – they go largely ignored by Congress and they do not allow for any genuine participation from the Puerto Rican people in defining the future of the island. The Status Convention provides a promising alternative that ameliorates many of these pitfalls by foregrounding the need for radically representative and deliberative participation on the part of the Puerto Rican people. 

While I am excited about the possibilities of this proposal, I maintain several reservations about what a Status Convention of this structure would look like. The first and most important of these reservations is that this Act maintains the position of Congress as the sole sovereign over Puerto Rico. Requiring that Congress ratify the proposed new status definition developed by the Convention, a ratification process that supersedes that of the Puerto Rican people, calls into question whether or not we can even truly call this a move towards self-determination. Secondly, I have found a concerning absence of the voices of political organizers and activists currently fighting for liberation in Puerto Rico in the conversations around this proposal. Activists in Puerto Rico have an incredibly nuanced understanding of the political possibilities on the island. They are often weary of this kind of top-down proposal, recalling how the U.S. has time and again pretended to implement democratic procedures for Puerto Ricans that have turned out to only maintain the same colonial power structures. At the same time, these procedures have been    used to declare “consent of the governed” and justify the persisting exploitative relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. Some activists maintain that no solution proposed by Congress will provide genuine self-determination, and, furthermore, that self-determination will only be achieved through revolutionary processes. Finally, while I appreciate the gesture of Reps. Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez, I am skeptical of the feasibility of this proposal, for while Puerto Rico has never been a priority of U.S. politics, the current crises taking over the United States today make it even less so. 

Despite the ways that this proposal falls short, I remain hopeful about what it means for the future of Puerto Rico. While I maintain that any genuine change in Puerto Rico needs to be driven by those doing the work on the island today, I understand that in order to dismantle something as great as a centuries-long legacy of colonial occupation, people of all walks of life  need to apply pressure at all junctures of the colonial infrastructure. This necessarily includes having advocates in Congress who are willing to push the issue of Puerto Rican status to the forefront of lawmakers’ agenda. It must also include voters in the United States, who find themselves in the position to speak for the Puerto Rican who is formally voiceless and disenfranchised. Finally, it requires that activists in the United States, who today see themselves activated and their voices heard to an unprecedented extent, work towards building solidarity with the struggle in Puerto Rico as they have done for decades. The struggle for liberation is futile if it does not call for the liberation of all peoples. There is much to be learned, shared and accomplished through this intersectional solidarity, and Puerto Ricans, like so many others in this country and around the world, have been waiting for change for far too long.


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