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WASHINGTON.- Luis Gutiérrez claimed that his bill, which calls for a referendum on Puerto Rico’s sovereignty options, is a chance to show Congress that the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico will never go away and to define it as a viable option.

“This is the time to unite anticolonial and Puerto Rican forces. I want to let Puerto Ricans know that there are options. We don’t have to live on our knees,” stated the Democratic Representative for Illinois’ 4th district.

On Tuesday, Gutiérrez introduced a bill calling for a federal referendum to choose between independence and free association. He considers both of these proposals to be Puerto Rico’s true options for ending the current territorial/colonial relationship.

He believes any dispute regarding the colonial nature of the current Puerto Rico/United States relationship has been settled in the wake of PROMESA. The law imposed an Oversight Board (OB) and placed it in control of the Puerto Rican Government’s finances.

“Congress, under conservative Republican leadership and with the support of many Democrats—including President Barack Obama—established that Puerto Rico is a colony. If Puerto Rico is a colony, only decolonization choices should be included. The Commonwealth (ELA, by its Spanish acronym) must not be taken into account. PROMESA is humiliating and dehumanizing,” Gutiérrez declared in an interview with El Nuevo Día, right after submitting his bill.

The legislation (HR 900) was submitted without a cosponsor, at a time when the Puerto Rican Government has convened a local referendum for June. The plebiscite, which features the choice between statehood and political sovereignty, advocates for a transition process in keeping with the current level of federal transfers. It also seeks to maintain the rights acquired by Puerto Ricans in programs such as Social Security and veteran pay, among others. At the same time, it grants suffrage to every person born in Puerto Rico or born of a Puerto Rican parent.

Why limit it to free association and independence?

—A pro-statehood bill was submitted to the US House of Representatives and I told myself: ‘This is not the only option’. I have always believed in independence and a proposal for autonomy for Puerto Rico. If there are three non-colonial formulas in Puerto Rico, why not give the members of Congress a chance to foster other formulas and create a discussion and debate over the best way to decolonize Puerto Rico?

Why not include statehood?

—Because it has already been proposed and I have always believed in independence. After 24 years in Congress, you could ask why I took so long.  They will propose that in which they believe. The viewpoints we believe in must be aimed towards a comprehensive debate. There is an interest here in limiting the debate to statehood, even though there has never been a mandate in Puerto Rico for statehood.

What if statehood wins in June’s referendum?

—It doesn’t matter. Independence is an unalienable right. That is what I will tell Congress. They can’t simply make supporters of independence disappear. They will always be a part of Puerto Rico’s political life. I have spent 24 years in Congress. During a panel last November, I stated that it is time to put our beliefs on the table. Independence supporters and those of us that believe in a sovereign Puerto Rico will be the ones to define independence. We are tired of statehood supporters presenting statehood as the most beautiful house in the world and ours as rotted-out and termite-ridden.  

I imagine your PDP Friends are not very happy with you.

—I did not ask statehood nor PDP supporters how to proceed. I have friends—men and women of good conscience—that support statehood and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). Nonetheless, this bill shouldn’t come as a surprise to any friend or member of the PDP.  I have spent 20 years saying that the Commonwealth is a colony and that it is not a dignified solution for Puerto Rico. 

The Puerto Rican Independence Party claimed they requested the bill.

—I have worked very closely with them as well as with other sovereigntist sectors in Puerto Rico. However, after a panel discussion this past November organized by the newspaper Claridad, I expressed I would submit a bill for independence. Party members approached me in December and told me ‘I have this bill’. I also read the decolonization bill by the Puerto Rican Bar Association. I believe this bill is much clearer and allows for a much wider debate. Years ago (the Independence Party leadership) did not speak to me. This is the time for unity.

The fact that you are proposing this legislation but do not live in Puerto Rico is being called into question in social media, as well as by pro-statehood politicians.

—I find it interesting that many of them are the same people that request my collaboration for nutrition and medical assistance, and Section 8. They have never asked me for the opportunity of more jobs in Puerto Rico. This creates the circumstances that generate more jobs. I have been very clear on this matter with the voters in my district. I spend time in Puerto Rico (where he has a house) frequently.

Does leaving out statehood it make it easier for Republicans?

—I hope to speak with Republicans and Democrats for support.  After PROMESA I do not need to defend my anti-colonial stance. More than Republicans, though, I want to speak to other Puerto Ricans so they can tell me what they think of the bill.

Did you speak with your Puerto Rican colleagues in Congress?

—José Serrano will support Jenniffer González. I am sure about that. I do not know about my colleague Nydia (Velázquez). She could support one bill or the other, as well as introduce her own. 

Why keep (US) citizenship in a sovereign Puerto Rico under free association?

—Because it can be done. The bill is pretty broad in terms of what free association should be. Once you are autonomous, you can keep the US citizenship. Look at Europe. The people are citizens of a common society. Many Puerto Ricans want sovereignty to create jobs and define their future. We have the capability to create a vibrant economy. I want the opportunity to unite all anticolonial and Puerto Rican sectors. Some of these sectors see a future in which Puerto Rico keeps a common citizenship and currency, albeit stemming from autonomous decisions. I do not want to separate people form their loved ones. We could aspire to come and go from the US like Canadians.  Nevertheless, the bill allows for the unilateral annulment of free association. I hope it leads to a discussion. I do not define every aspect that independence represents.

If Congress, in an unprecedented move, decides to move forward with a binding status referendum and the Committee on Natural Resources—of which Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González is a member—instructed you to include statehood, how would you respond?

—I proposed the options in which I believed. Statehood supporters have unilaterally decided to tell Congress that statehood is a ‘fait accompli’ (done deal). It’s not that I think Puerto Rico does not deserve statehood. I want to explain to the members of Congress that Puerto Rico is a different nation. How to envision the state of Puerto Rico, where the schools, courts, and political life are in Spanish, under a government led by Donald Trump and his nationalist advisor Steve Bannon? They also need to have that conversation. My duty is to propose other options because I believe in them and have never officially proposed them. One of the greatest things that came about with the release of Oscar López Rivera is that I am also free to make decisions and submit proposals I had previously been shy to make.