March 9, 2010

Statehood will give Puerto Rico economic, social parity with the U.S., Fortuño says

Governor of Puerto Rico Luis G. Fortuño advanced the cause of statehood for the commonwealth during a speech March 8 in Bailey Hall.

He titled his prepared remarks "Puerto Rico's Stellar Vocation" and devoted much of the 25-minute talk to an impending vote by the people of Puerto Rico to choose independence, statehood or remaining a commonwealth. In the United States, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, a resolution in the House of Representatives, also has the support of 181 Congressmen, he said.

"What makes Puerto Rico of real interest is the fact that this shining star of ours … is coming along on the road to statehood," he said.

Fortuño also detailed economic reforms he has made to restore fiscal health and cut a budget deficit, and other challenges facing the commonwealth, in light of its territorial status and relationship with the United States.

"Since June of 2008, our priorities were to put our fiscal house in order … to spur private sector growth and lay the groundwork for economic growth," the governor said, adding that he had "cut my own salary and that of all government employees, incentivized voluntary retirement, and cut staff and expenses." He said that over the next three years, his programs will generate $7 billion in revenue and "tens of thousands of jobs."

"The toughest times are the prelude to renewal," Fortuño said.

However, he later noted, "At the federal level, we simply do not have a place at the table. … [In regard to] health care and other federal initiatives, the four million Americans residing in Puerto Rico should be fully and equally represented. American citizens in Puerto Rico that need help the most are shortchanged by millions of dollars, compared to their counterparts in the United States."

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory for 112 years and changing its status has previously been considered by Washington lawmakers in 1967, 1993 and 1998.

"I believe in equality," Fortuño said. "The people are ready and capable to assume the full rights of their fellow citizens. To see that Puerto Rico fulfills its potential, this is my vision of a more perfect union."

The governor also mentioned his support for the Arecibo Observatory, part of a national research center and radio telescope facility in Puerto Rico, operated by Cornell in cooperation with the National Science Foundation.

"Since 1963, [Arecibo] has literally expanded the knowledge of all mankind," he said. "Its study of pulsars, plasma physics and near-earth asteroids has been extraordinary -- and I have worked in Congress to make sure its work will continue."

About 1,000 people attended the governor's talk, which was followed by a question-and-answer session in which several students and community members challenged Fortuño on statehood vs. independence, green environmental policies, poverty and other issues. Fortuño was introduced by students Julio Gabral and Konstantin Drabkin, who helped organize the event.

His visit to Cornell included a campus tour with his son, who was recently accepted to the ILR School.

Fortuño is a Republican elected to office in 2008; he was formerly Puerto Rico's sole Congressional representative and chair of the House of Representatives' Hispanic Caucus. He is also vice chairman of the Southern Governors Association, a member of President Barack Obama's bipartisan Council of Governors, created earlier this year; and president of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico. He was educated in foreign service at Georgetown University and holds a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.