Lawmakers present two opposing bills to resolve Puerto Rico's territorial status

House lawmakers have introduced two opposing bills that address the future of Puerto Rico's territorial status. CBS News correspondent Lilia Luciano joined CBSN to discuss the differences between the bills and how they reflect the nuances of Puerto Rican politics.

Video Transcript

NIKKI BATTISTE: Congress may be one step closer to finally addressing Puerto Rico's longstanding territorial status. Two drastically different bills have been introduced in the House. One calls for statehood. The other gives the decision back to the people of Puerto Rico. Both bills have received high praise and intense backlash, and they could make it to the Senate floor by the end of the month. Joining me now for more is CBS News correspondent, Lilia Luciano. Lilia, walk us through these two bills. Why are they so different?

LILIA LUCIANO: Nikki, we have to start with the division that exists in Puerto Rico politically, and especially recognizing that most of that division goes along with the status of Puerto Rico. The first bill-- if we pick one to start with-- would be the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act. That is brought forward by Darren Soto, the Congressman from Florida, supported by the pro statehood party, the PNP of Puerto Rico.

The governor, Governor Pierluisi, you might have seen a lot of appearances by him in the media, because he's been lobbying hard, telling people in Congress that this is in the best interest of not just the people of Puerto Rico, but of the States too, trying to convince Republican conservatives that Puerto Rico wouldn't be an entirely Democrat state if it became a state, and then talking about the civil rights or the human rights of the people of Puerto Rico, and how achieving statehood would bring equality to Puerto Rico.

The issue with that bill is that it kind of completely ignores, minimizes, oversimplifies an entire history and an entire culture and identity of the people of Puerto Rico. Most Puerto Ricans have an identity as a country. Of course, we are American citizens. Puerto Ricans who are born in the island have citizenship, and have had citizenship for 100 years.

But there's a whole history of not just Puerto Rican identity, but a history of repressing, of persecuting, of prosecuting dissenting thoughts from that relationship with the United States. The Puerto Rican independence movement has been over years-- both by the Puerto Rican government and the US government-- essentially persecuted out of the thought. I mean, Puerto Ricans-- there was a gag rule in Puerto Rico for decades, where you couldn't even wave the Puerto Rican flag.

So, you know, saying that Puerto Ricans who, you know, don't choose statehood are somehow misinformed, uninformed, don't get it, is a completely reductive theory, ignoring a huge amount of dissent for statehood in Puerto Rico. If you divide the three major political parties in the island, you, know the majority, of course, in the referendums in the past, have voted for statehood. But the other half-- or more than half-- have historically boycotted those referendums, because they see it as a political theater.

So that takes us to the other bill, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020, which was considered last year, of course, 2020, by AOC and by Nydia Velázquez. That one takes into account everything that the Puerto Rican people would want, so all of the different thoughts, all of the different variations of, you know, self-determination. It calls for a status convention where delegates would choose a decolonizing option for Puerto Rico. And that's something that's more democratic.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Lilia, advocates used non-binding referendum votes in Puerto Rico to justify the statehood bill. Why are those votes so complicated, and are they an accurate portrayal of how many people support statehood?

LILIA LUCIANO: I would say, you know, a hard no. Because the campaigning for those referendums has been done, and they have been brought forward by the pro statehood party. So, you know, in the last election on November, many people I talked to from Puerto Rico saw that referendum as a way to garner more political support for the candidates of the pro statehood party, which the governor of Puerto Rico belongs to.

So essentially, it a lot of people said it's a way of bringing people to the polls to vote for the party. Because the party was very unpopular. It's the party of Ricky Roselló, the governor that was ousted, that was basically chased out of the governor's mansion. So the people who don't vote or believe in statehood, or don't want statehood for Puerto Rico, either boycott these votes, ignore it altogether for the referendum.

And that's why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Nydia Velázquez with a solid support from many organizations in the island in [INAUDIBLE] here in the United States are advocating for a different solution to end the colonial status of Puerto Rico that really takes into consideration other pro-sovereignty-- something like what Puerto Rico has right now, which is kind of a territorial relationship-- but ending the inequities that Puerto Ricans have in the island that they don't have or we don't have when we move to the States.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Puerto Rico doesn't have the same political system as the 50 states. Explain how that impacts the debate for statehood, and how progressive parties are disrupting the traditional Puerto Rican system.

LILIA LUCIANO: It's interesting that you mention the new progressive parties, because that's true. I mean, right now, one of the reasons why the conversation around statehood is so important, so crucial, so popular is because, you know, here in the States-- and, of course, advocates of all the different status options-- are thinking, well, we have a Democrat majority in Congress. Perhaps that Democrat majority in Congress will pay more attention to Puerto Rico.

And so, you know, the thinking for many Democrats is, if you make Puerto Rico a state, that would almost guarantee two Democratic senators, and, you know, four Democratic representatives in Congress for Puerto Rico. The governor will say, it's not like that. Most people would agree, and most political scientists would agree that, yes, a majority of Puerto Ricans would vote Democrat if Puerto Rico were to become a state.

But the thing is that in Puerto Rico, what's happening is the opposite of dividing into two parties. We have seen over the last several elections a growth in support-- especially after Maria-- a growth in support for other parties. So Puerto Rico is moving in the direction of not a two-party system, but a multiple-party system, where the pro-independence party is growing in support. The candidate for governor for the pro independence party had a great deal of support, historically high numbers. And then you have Victoria Ciudadana and these other parties.

So yeah, Puerto Rico is kind of segmenting into a non-two-party system. So yeah, it would be really interesting to see how to make logic of, oh, let's then adapt Puerto Rico-- which all the political parties have very much to do with the status-- but also to resolve a lot of issues that have been brought forward that have happened because of the colonial relationship, because of racist policies of seeing Puerto Ricans as people who are not capable of governing themselves. So, you know, it's a very different system, and it does have to do a lot with the status, but with a lot of other issues that can be resolved with solutions that are not the easy fix of statehood for Puerto Rico, and that'll fix everything.

NIKKI BATTISTE: Lilia Luciano, thank you for your insight.

LILIA LUCIANO: Thank you, Nikki.