On April 29, 2010, 223 US Representatives stood up for Democracy. They voted their conscience on a bill that will forever stay in the hearts and minds of 4 million US citizens residing in Puerto Rico, as well as their following generations. This victory is the result of a year of steadfast leadership, activism, partnership, and committed vision. Our elected leaders, especially our Governor, Luis G. Fortuño, and our Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, have led the way towards this unique point in our history as a people. Following their steps, the Puerto Rico Statehood Students Association took the arduous and difficult task of taking the message of equality to our capital, Washington, DC. In its beginning, PRSSA’s lobbyist efforts amounted to no more than two students and the power of righteous conviction. Immediately, even before any bill had been presented, PRSSA’s efforts in DC took to the intimidating halls of Congress. As we met with congressmen, their staff, and other members of the Federal Government, we soon realized the inherent value that the PRSSA had within the Statehood cause. I remember the first meeting we had regarding the subject. I knew all the facts regarding the issue, but how do we sell it? The Congressman was Ben Lujan from New Mexico. He was Hispanic, he had been to Puerto Rico, and was a good friend of Bill Richardson (a friend of our cause). To my surprise, he wondered why 20% of Puerto Ricans believed in independence. I was shocked. I explained to him that that was not the case, less than 3% believed in that option, and that the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans believe in a definite change and that that’s what HR2499 offers. On April 29, 2010, Congressman Ben Lujan voted for HR2499. It has been a long time since a pro-statehood organization was active in the capital, much less one that advocated for equality and self-determination. In the past year, PRSSA filled a void and fulfilled its duty as an agent of equality.
Student activism is one of the most versatile forms of political outreach. We are young, eager, idealistic and tireless – all excellent qualities in taking on Congress. For well over a year our efforts increased, and as our DC team grew, our friends in Congress grew as well. With the announcing of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, PRSSA took the battle to the internet – the creation of http://www.hr2499.com aided in the dissemination of the truth regarding the Puerto Rico status. The website became essential in combating the lies and deceit that the enemies of equality spread. Especially after the assault of the erratic and incoherent Glenn Beck who showed utter disregard for the will of 4 million U.S. citizens, segregating us to a second class citizenship. The quick and easy to access mechanism of the website allowed our now almost daily meetings in Congress to go smoothly – and without a doubt, helped recruit dozens of Congressmen to our cause. As our issue grew, and our presence felt, we began creating allies in both the public and private sector. They became essential to our advocacy, among them we counted on professional lobbyists from some of the most prestigious firms in the U.S., contributing their time and effort to the cause on a pro-bono basis. Through them we were able to take our efforts to the general media, getting published in the National Review and the National Journal – two main publications in the U.S. with a large circulation among the decision makers of the country.
All the while, as we kept expanding in the media, countering the lies published by the opposition, our meetings in Congress became incredibly successful. By the time the bill had reached the Resources Committee, PRSSA added even more Congressmen to the co-sponsorship list. During Committee hearings, our Executive Director, Eduardo Soto, and I, submitted a written testimony on behalf of the organization – forever securing PRSSA’s role as a champion of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico. In part, we stated that “no U.S. citizen should have to leave his or her home to have the same rights as other citizens.” These words inspired Congressmen Patrick Kennedy and Don Young to personally thank us for our efforts. These were the first of many recognitions we would receive for our tireless efforts. The Committee hearings had the astounding result of clarifying many of the issues and concerns that other congressmen had with the issue of Puerto Rican self-determination. As a result, a flood of co-sponsors filed in for HR2499. By then, PRSSA had visited every office in Congress to inform them of the importance of this bill. All 435 offices.
Then, the announcement was made on April 22, 2010 that HR2499 would be voted on in exactly one week. Merely one day before, the PRSSA DC staff had the pleasure of discussing the matter with the Governor and the Resident Commissioner in an event hosted by the Mayor of San Juan. Our message to our leaders was clear: we are ready.
Immediately, all our efforts in the past year paid off. PRSSA took over the internet publishing on blogs, news sites, facebook, and the blogosphere. The membership called Congressional offices and expressed their support of HR2499. Our friends in Congress secured us meetings with dozens of congressmen to strategize on our moves and secure their votes. By Tuesday April 27, PRSSA mobilized over 40 members to walk the halls of Congress. In its event, PRSSA goes to Congress, we, as an organization, were able to visit over 250 offices on a single day to advocate for HR2499. As Puerto Ricans gathered on Wednesday, April 28, PRSSA counted with the largest delegation as our membership flew from different chapters across the country. Like the day before, we visited hundreds of offices, gathering support and challenging the opposition. On one occasion, our Executive Director personally walked a congressman’s legislative director to a briefing hosted by the Resident Commissioner, the Governor, and Mr. Jeffrey Farrow. We faced friends and enemies in Congress, but in the end, we visited every office to make sure that they were aware of the vote on the coming day. When the day of the vote came, we were the first to arrive to Congress and went straight to debate our biggest opponent: Congressman Jason Chaffetz. We met with him personally to make him aware of the will of the people of Puerto Rico. Even he was impressed at our showing by stating “I admire your resolve.” Up until the very last moment, our membership called and visited Congressional offices to gather their support. When the vote came, we won by 54 votes. 223 brave Representatives cast their vote in support of our rights – and PRSSA was there, holding hands with other Puerto Ricans awaiting for Congressman Jose Serrano’s gavel to announce the closing of this session of the House of Representatives. Not even the guards could quell our raucous outburst at seeing the Governor enter the floor and hug our Resident Commissioner. Not even our First Lady, Luce Vela, could contain herself at the sight of Pedro Pierluisi jumping in emotion giving us the thumbs up.
This is just a small summary of the accounts that have taken place in the past year regarding our efforts in Washington, DC. Needless to say, there are many accounts that go unmentioned. Arguments, jokes, conversations, dinners, arrests, fights, crying and laughter.It has been a long road, but an exciting one – and at the sight of victory in the House, both Governor Fortuño and Resident Commissioner Pierluisi came up to me and with a hug thanked us for our work, but reminded me of one very important fact: this is not over. PRSSA has marked history, but its role is not done. It is our duty and our destiny to take this effort to the U.S. Senate. So let us gather now with the same passion and sense of duty that we undertook with the House of Representatives, and start claiming our rights in the Senate. It is up to us to fulfill our island’s destiny. Will you stand up and fight for it? We will.
Raul R. Vidal is the President of the Puerto Rico Statehood Students Association, a non-profit student advocacy group that promotes self-determinancy for Puerto Rico, and the political participation of pro-statehood youth.