Mar 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

AOC challenges Puerto Rico governor over statehood

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is seen marching in New York City's 2019 Puerto Rican Day parade.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade in 2019. Photo: Erin Lefevre/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez are pushing ahead with a bill in Congress that would let Puerto Rico decide its future — a proposal threatening Gov. Pedro Pierluisi's determination to pursue statehood for the island.

Why it matters: There's an urgency among supporters of statehood to get it done while Democrats control both chambers of Congress, and President Biden has been publicly supportive. But there's a growing divide within the party about whether statehood is actually the best solution for the U.S. territory.

  • During a joint phone interview with Axios on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez said she still hasn't heard from Pierluisi, and Velázquez said she met with him virtually a few weeks ago.

Driving the news: A coalition of over 80 grassroots groups across 16 states and Puerto Rico sent a letter Thursday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging them to pass the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020.

  • The bill, drafted by Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez, calls for self-determination to decide the island’s future and doesn’t advocate for one solution, like statehood.
  • Instead, a group of delegates — elected by Puerto Rican voters — would study the issue and come up with a plan for the island’s territorial status, which includes such solutions as statehood, independence or a free association.

The big picture: This is progressives' counter-movement to Pierluisi — who campaigned on statehood and discussed the matter with "Axios on HBO" — and fellow Democrats.

  • On Tuesday, two Puerto Rican members of Congress — Reps. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico's non-voting member — introduced pro-statehood legislation.

What they're saying: Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez say their proposal would help the decolonization process for Puerto Rico and provide a more serious way of deciding its future.

  • "The principled position — especially for the head of that colonizing power — is to say that people should have a process of self-determination and to not put your thumb on the scale of one direction or another," Ocasio-Cortez said.
  • Puerto Rico has held several non-binding referendums on its status, including becoming a U.S. state, since 1967.
  • Last November, Puerto Rico residents voted narrowly in favor of statehood (52% support to 47% against).

"This plebiscite that was conducted by the New Progressive Party was a political trick to entice people to come out to the polls," Velázquez said. She said that during her virtual meeting with Pierluisi, he told her he'd be in D.C. more often, lobbying for statehood.

  • "It's highly suspect when anyone is trying to prescribe an outcome for millions of people," Ocasio-Cortez said.
  • "We have to think about how ridiculous this is that the entire future and status of a colony of the United States should just be determined by a simple ballot referendum."

Pierluisi believes now is his time to achieve what his party wants — statehood — because Democrats control Congress. But he's learning early on in his administration that it’s not that easy, especially if progressives have a say.

  • Democrats are divided on whether statehood is the right move, and some say the reality of getting it done in this Congress remains slim because there are so many other things both parties are prioritizing.
  • The congresswomen say the outside support for their bill is a win because they're focused on building momentum outside of Congress and with constituents who are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
  • "It is important for members of Congress to get educated on this issue and know we cannot play political football with Puerto Rico," Velázquez said.
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