Puerto Rican pride: A Q&A with Rep. Nydia Velázquez
The 60th annual Puerto Rican Day Parade has been mired in controversy since the announcement that Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist militant recently released from federal prison after 35 years, will be honored. Since then, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill have backed out of marching in the parade and many of the sponsors have pulled their support. But June 11 is not just a polarizing day for Boricuas in New York, it's also the day Puerto Ricans will be voting in the latest referendum on the island’s political status.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez was born in Puerto Rico and now represents parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. The Congresswoman joined the Slant Podcast last week to talk about the island’s future, why she’ll be marching on Jun 11, how she is strategizing as a Democrat in Trump's Washington and whether she thinks impeachment is in his future. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. You can listen to it in full here.
C&S: What’s been most shocking to you and your colleagues that Trump has said?
NV: The most telling moment for me was when he stated that he didn’t know how difficult the thing about repealing the ACA. When he said he never knew that it will be so difficult. Hello, welcome to Washington. He said on the campaign that once he became president he would repeal the ACA on day one. Well we still haven’t been able.
C&S: Are Governor Cuomo and Bill de Blasio exaggerating how much of a budgetary threat Trump is to New Yorkers?
NV: The sentiment of being frightened by this administration, how dysfunctional Washington is, how dysfunctional this White House and the President is – it’s an area of concern to every American and to every mayor and every governor. We are talking here about billions of dollars coming to New York that could be impacted by not having any action in Washington or by allowing his budget proposal to move forward. On the area of the budget, one thing is the president proposes it but we dispose it, the Congress. And we saw that with the 2017 CR, the omnibus. The Democrats, we had a great victory where we were able to restore funding for all the Democratic priorities, including the fact that we didn’t allow for one penny to be allocated to construct or build the wall. That, to me, tells how important it is to approach this administration and the Republicans in Washington who want to deconstruct government, presenting us with a united voice, a united front. That is the most important thing here.
C&S: Looking ahead to the midterm elections, is there a challenge for Democrats in focusing too much on the Russia issue with Trump without focusing on what a Democratic vision for the country would be?
NV: When we talk about marginal districts, job creation is an important issue. We have a President who, every day during the campaign, spoke about jobs, job jobs. OK, so we have an issue where we can coalesce Republicans and Democrats, and that’s infrastructure. Today we were having a call with the Governor, Cuomo, because he’s asking for the White House, the President, to provide funding for maintenance of the infrastructure of Amtrak (at Penn Station). We are dealing with those issues. I’m working on legislation with the Congressional Progressive Caucus on infrastructure legislation. So there is an area where we can continue to raise that issue. The other is, a big plus for us, was to defend the ACA. Back in March we forced the Republicans to pull the legislation off the calendar. Why? Because we were able to demonstrate how bad that legislation will be for the working poor and middle class in America. Including the blue-collar workers that voted for Donald Trump. 1500 Republican counties that supported Donald Trump will be most impacted if we repeal the ACA.
The other issue is tax reform. Talk about an area where we can have bipartisan legislation. But again, on infrastructure, how are we going to pay for it. The Republicans, they don’t even support a one-penny per gallon of gasoline. That’s outrageous. And then we have tax reform. We need reform. The tax code is broken. It’s not enough to campaign on that issue and then not present legislation that is center-based, that is broad-based. I’ll say to the Republicans, if you want to reform the tax code that will not negatively impact the middle class, the working families in this country, let’s do it. But if you intend to pass corporate tax cuts at the expense of the rest of Americans, I will oppose it.
C&S: Was Puerto Rico ever a sticking point in budget negotiations?
NV: It was, and the Democrats - I am very grateful to Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and all the Democratic leadership, because they made Puerto Rico a priority. And we fought very hard to secure funding for Medicaid to try to prevent the Medicaid cliff that Puerto Rico was confronting. Again, this is a President who’s impulsive. He reacts to things without doing any research, without investigating, without getting information first. This is not a bailout. It’s money that is owed to Puerto Rico – and the federal government owes Puerto Rico $800 million out of that Medicaid money that was provided by, was allocated by the Obama administration. So to say that funding for Medicaid is bailing out Puerto Rico is just ignorance.
C&S: At any point have Democratic House members briefed the President or any of his people about what’s happening in Puerto Rico?
NV: We have requested meetings with this administration and it hasn’t happened. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has sent, I believe, two letters to the President to have a meeting and we haven’t gotten an answer yet.
"The most conservative forces in Puerto Rico, more than here, are seizing this opportunity to really create some friction and to use it in a way to energize, again, their base to come out and vote during the plebiscite that is coming."
C&S: Puerto Rico is holding a referendum vote on its political status on June 11, but any decision is ultimately up to Congress. Why doesn’t Congress bit the bullet and make a decision on Puerto Rico?
NV: We don’t have legislation yet where all the parties can agree to promote or provide a mechanism for the self-determination of Puerto Rico. So basically if you have legislation introduced by (Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico) Jenniffer González it will be legislation that will make it in such ways that the deck would be stacked in favor of statehood… So in the meantime we are dealing with what we have in front of us: how to help Puerto Rico cope with the financial crisis. And right now, (Supreme Court Chief) Justice Roberts appointed a judge that is going to oversee bankruptcy proceedings. Laura Taylor Swain, of Brooklyn.
C&S: The controversial Obama-era bill to tackle the Puerto Rico debt crisis, PROMESA, created a fiscal control board. Has it worked, or should it be replaced?
NV: In terms of replacing it, the composition of the board, I don’t know. But the most important aspect of PROMESA is providing Puerto Rico with a tool to file for bankruptcy. Puerto Rico didn’t have that right. If Puerto Rico didn’t have the ability to file for bankruptcy, you can imagine how many lawsuits would have been filed in federal court right now at this moment. Some of those debts were guaranteed by the constitution. You can imagine how many vendors, how many businesses would be in court today demanding full repayment of their debt. And any judge could have ruled to say all this is guaranteed by the Constitution… it would have been a cascade of lawsuits. It would have paralyzed the government’s operation in Puerto Rico without Title III. So the question is the financial board. Of course I didn’t want a financial board, but the Republican leadership would have never, never allowed for any legislation to give a tool such as Title III without a fiscal board in place. It happened in Detroit, it happened in D.C.
C&S: Is Wall Street the main culprit in Puerto Rico’s debt crisis?
NV: Oh yes. The only way that we could reduce what Puerto Rico owes is through debt restructuring. So the board, I believe, will be asking for a massive cut, a high percentage of cut reduction in terms of how –
C&S: Pennies to the dollar for investors?
NV: No, we are not talking about pennies to the dollar. No. It could be 70 percent debt reduction. Do you think that you’re going to get any bondholders who lent to the government of Puerto Rico, in good faith, a reduction of even 50 percent? So the judge will have an opportunity to see how much money was lent to Puerto Rico, what was the rate when they bought those bonds, 20 cents to the dollar, and based on that, and all the responsibility that we have with providing the functioning and operation of the civil society in Puerto Rico, all of that will come to place when the judge will make a determination as to what is fair. And what is fair is based on the fiscal reality of Puerto Rico.
The next hearing will happen August 30th, and it will present a list of all the debts owed by the government of Puerto Rico. One thing that I really like about this judge was her pronouncement that every single piece of information to be provided to the court both in English and in Spanish.
C&S: The Puerto Rican Day Parade is June 11, and there’s a controversy about honoring Oscar López Rivera. How do you feel about him be celebrated as a “National Freedom Hero?”
NV: I supported the release of Oscar López Rivera. I believe that the President did the right thing (granting clemency). For many of us, Oscar López Rivera is our Nelson Mandela. We cannot overlook the abuse of power from the federal government, the FBI, and the DOJ by imposing such a severe sentence of 70 years for a seditious crime. Not even presenting evidence that Oscar López Rivera was even involved or a co-conspirator to the crime (the Fraunces Tavern bombing) that was committed here in New York. So there was no evidence at all. He was in Puerto Rico. He wasn’t here at the time. So 70 years for a seditious crime is an abuse of power. No matter how you look at it. The only crime that he committed in my view was to love Puerto Rico and to pursue the freedom of Puerto Rico.
And even when President Bill Clinton pardoned him, he decided to stay (in prison) and rejected it, because he didn’t want to be free unless everybody else was released.
In terms of the parade, the most conservative forces in Puerto Rico, more than here, are seizing this opportunity to really create some friction and to use it in a way to energize, again, their base to come out and vote during the plebiscite that is coming. But for the board of directors of the parade, I don’t know the discussion that took place. I was not asked as to if I had any opinion to it. I think that people have to be careful in terms of cultural institutions that could be perceived as supporting one political spectrum against the other, but I will be participating in the parade and I will be honoring Oscar López in my own way. But this is for the board to really come together and assess going forward the type of decisions they make in terms of the people that they pick to honor. I have never seen, for many years, a controversy such as this one. And again, what it puts into play is the political divisions among Puerto Ricans over the political status.
C&S: Some accused the New York City Mayor’s office of inappropriately stoking fears around federal immigration officials visiting a public school asking for a student. Did you think that was the case? Are you concerned about unprecedented steps from immigration agents?
NV: Whether or not the Mayor’s reaction was without checking first or trying to get to the bottom of the facts, it shows you how much fear exists in the immigrant community. And I think that the Mayor did the right thing because people need to know. And especially our children and the parents of our children, that they have in the Mayor someone who will be standing up to the ill, mean-spirited policies coming out of the White House.
Especially when it comes to children and students, we need to seize every opportunity to send a strong message that in New York, we embrace diversity and we protect all of our children. It’s not only the fear, it’s that we don’t trust immigration and the agencies – Homeland Security – when it comes to actions taken that affect our community. So there is just this immediate reaction to whatever we hear or we see to rally and to show that we’re going to be there protecting our communities.
C&S: You don’t have a crystal ball, but you’re a seasoned politician. Do you see impeachment in Donald Trump’s future or not?
NV: First of all, one area is to find whether or not there was collusion. The second one is, people are saying he is interfering with an investigation and that is why (former FBI Director James) Comey wrote those memos. The issue with interfering is intent. And so that is a very difficult and high bar. I am not a lawyer, but I will say today it’s a 50/50 proposition. On the other hand, since he found out how difficult it is to be president of the United States and – I don’t know, maybe he’s not having fun and he might resign.