Representative Nydia Velazquez: U.S. needs to be "on the right side of history" on Puerto Rico's political future

House Democrats have introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, which seeks to create a commission on potential solutions to address the island's 123 year status as a U.S. territory, such as statehood, independence, or free association. CBS News correspondent Lilia Luciano joins CBSN's "Red & Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with more on her interview with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of New York, who introduced the bill along with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: House Democrats unveiled a bill Thursday they say will empower Puerto Ricans to determine their own political future. The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act was introduced by Congresswomen Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It would create a commission for Puerto Ricans to explore different long-term solutions to address the island's US territory status. Here's how Congresswoman Velázquez described the plan to CBS News, Lelia Luciano, earlier.

LILIA LUCIANO: Are there any misconceptions that worry you as you lobby for this bill that you're facing in Congress about Puerto Rico?

NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: This, in no way, is an attempt to undermine those who are advocating for statehood. But also, in ending the colonial situation of Puerto Rico, we must provide a mechanism for everyone who had been subjected to a colonial status for 123 years to be able to have their day and cast a vote as to what are their dreams and aspirations, whether it's statehood, free association, or independence. And we need to be on the right side of history when we will be judged by what we did and how we resolve the issue of a colony in 2021.

ELAINE QUIJANO: It's not the only effort in Congress to address Puerto Rico's status. The Puerto Rico Statehood Initiative was also introduced this month and would set up a vote for residents to decide on statehood and ultimately, its own senators and representatives. Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898. Residents are born US citizens and can serve in the military, but they do not enjoy full constitutional rights. That includes the right to vote in a general election.

For more on her interview and this issue, CBS News correspondent, Lilia Luciano joins me now. Welcome, Lilia. You know, this is so interesting because it's been a longstanding issue. First of all, explain what this commission is actually going to do and the role that Congress would play.

LILIA LUCIANO: It's good to see you, Elaine. Thanks for having me. Well, the commission, it's a bilateral commission. It's made up of members of Congress and of the delegates that will be chosen by the people of Puerto Rico. So what this bill does is it proposes that there are two votes.

First, there's going to be a vote by the people of Puerto Rico for delegates, each delegate representing different interests or different options for the decolonization of Puerto Rico. Those options could include independence, statehood, and something like an enhanced commonwealth, which is similar to what is the status now. But it did not include the status that Puerto Rico has right now, which both sides are considering a colony.

So first, there's going to be a vote for the delegates. Later on, those delegates are going to meet, and they will be collaborating in the bilateral commission with members of Congress and members of the Department of Justice to negotiate. Now, that commission will advise, and they can decide what each of these options will look like. After those options have been decided, then once again, the people of Puerto Rico would get to vote for each of those options and whatever wins would go back to Congress. Congress has to [? expect ?] according to the bill and ratify the interests that the majority of Puerto Ricans voted for.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, in the most recent elections, a slim majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood, but it's non-binding. When you asked Congresswoman Velasquez why another referendum was necessary, here's what she said. Let's listen.

NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: This is not an election to vote for the governor of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican legislature. This is an election that will define the future of the people of Puerto Rico politically. And so the last election, it was a beauty contest. There was not a binding resolution that will force or will bring the United States to the table.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So she touched on it there, but Lilia, why does she see the last election as a beauty contest?

LILIA LUCIANO: It's for various reasons. First of all, most importantly, both bills that are in Congress right now that have been introduced are binding, meaning that whatever the people decide of Puerto Rico, that, Congress has to follow. So it's not that Congress has the last word, but that it goes to the people of Puerto Rico, so it's binding.

She's talking about a beauty pageant or beauty contest because these referendums in the past have been criticized for being proposed, brought forward by the pro-statehood party as a political tool to gain support for their candidate. So people go to vote for both [AUDIO OUT]. People know it's not up to the voters of Puerto Rico to decide, but to Congress. But at the same time, they would go vote for the candidates for governor and other political positions. So this would separate that and couldn't be used as a tool for promoting any kind of status or rather, any candidate.

The other reason she's calling it a beauty pageant or I guess she said a beauty contest is because the people of Puerto Rico have been very skeptical of these referendums in the past, and they have been boycotted by the people who do not support statehood. So it seems to a lot of people who support independence or a different status that this is just an empty promise of a vote so they don't show up in the polls.

Now, both bills, both the Statehood Bill and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act are saying, enough with these empty votes. Let's put it on the people of Puerto Rico to decide, and then Congress, in the end, has to ratify what people decide. Now, this bill is being criticized by the pro-statehood party. The resident commissioner of Puerto Rico just put out a release saying there's nothing more colonial in nature than a small group of people deciding for the people of Puerto Rico.

On the other side, the people who support the Self-Determination Act say, no, this is Democratic because this is not saying yes or no to statehood. This is not imposing statehood on the minority, even if it's almost an equal minority that don't vote for statehood.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So bottom line here in our final minute, Lilia, in order to become a law, this bill would need also 60 votes in the Senate. Is the bipartisan support there?

LILIA LUCIANO: There is at least one Republican senator who is cosponsoring this bill of the Senate, which Senator Bob Menendez brought forward. The other bill, the pro-statehood bill does have bipartisanship. We have to remember a lot of Republicans don't support statehood for Puerto Rico under the assumption that Puerto Rico would be a blue State.

The people who support or bringing this bill forward say, not so fast. Not so sure. There are plenty of conservative Puerto Ricans. Why don't we let them decide? This does not exclude statehood in a convention and in a system where the people elect the delegates that will determine what those outcomes that are going to be seen and voted by the people of Puerto Rico on a referendum will be in consultation with Congress.

That's what this is about. I have also spoken with Representative Darren Soto, who supports and authored, introduced the statehood bill, and we can continue the conversation on social media and in future interventions here too.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah, well, there is, as we said, a longstanding issue, so many implications to this. Lilia Luciano, Lilia, thank you so much.

LILIA LUCIANO: Thank you, Elaine.