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Tonight on Al Jazeera America: Should Puerto Rico become the 51st State?

With its people culturally united but politically divided, what is the best way forward? Join the conversation at 7:30pm ET.

What do you think? Record a video comment or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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In response to recent news in Puerto Rico that the pro-statehood and Republican administration of Governor Luis Fortuño is calling for changes to the island’s hate crime laws to exclude the LGBT community as well as Dominican immigrants, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D) released the following statement today:

Attorney General Holder Must Get Involved in Puerto Rico’s Civil Rights Crisis and Protect

LGBT, Women’s and Immigrant Rights, Gutierrez says

(Washington, DC) — Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez wrote Attorney General Eric Holder today calling for a federal task force to investigate and prosecute hate crimes occurring in Puerto Rico.  Earlier in the week, the legislature in Puerto Rico began consideration of Senate bill 2021 to eliminate gender, national origin, and sexual orientation or identity as protected classes related to hate crimes under the Puerto Rico penal code (see Rep. Gutierrez’ previous statement from Dec. 5).  The Congressman, who has been an outspoken critic of what he considers a broad spectrum of erosions of civil and human rights in Puerto Rico under the current government regime, is now asking AG Holder to get personally and directly involved.

“If Puerto Rico doesn’t want to protect its residents from attacks, violence and murder, then the federal authorities need to step in and ensure the most basic rights of life and liberty are protected,” Rep. Gutierrez said.  “The Attorney General has prioritized hate crime prosecutions and here we have the ruling party in Puerto Rico going in the completely opposite direction and it should not be allowed to happen on the Attorney General’s watch.”

Rep. Gutierrez’ letter asks the Attorney General consider “steps you can take to protect the communities that the ruling party in Puerto Rico has chosen to specifically put at risk.”

At least 18 LGBT individuals have been killed in Puerto Rico and a pattern of violence against women, transgendered, gay and lesbian people, and immigrants has been widely reported and was addressed in a landmark Department of Justice report on the systematic abuses of the constitutional rights of the Puerto Rican people by the police department of Puerto Rico.

The Congressman writes:

All Americans should be proud of the progress we have made in protecting all communities from hate crimes.  We should be gratified that the trend in many states in our union is toward equal protection under the law without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and ethnic origin.  I am greatly disappointed that the ruling party in Puerto Rico is taking active steps to deny justice and equality to all of its residents.  I hope that the U.S. Department of Justice will take all possible steps to help protect all of the people of Puerto Rico.

The full text of the letter is available at (pdf): http://bit.ly/HolderLtrpdf

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To the uninitiated, the island of Puerto Rico is quietly turning into a Republican social laboratory for the rest of the United States, and recent news out of the island regarding the proposed legislation of its hate crimes bill confirms the following: the pro-statehood and GOP administration of Governor Luis Fortuño is trying to force laws that negatively impact Puerto Rico’s LGBT community.

Puerto Rican Republican Governor Luis Fortuño

As reported by Edge of the Net, Fortuño and his political pro-statehood Progressive Party allies are seeking to exclude LGBT-specific protections from the island’s hate crimes law.

The Puerto Rico Senate late last month approved a provision that would eliminate sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ethnicity and religious beliefs from the hate crimes statute that was included in the penal code that lawmakers approved in 2004. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the amended penal code this week during an extraordinary legislative session that Gov. Luis Fortuño convened.

Representative Héctor Ferrer and Sen. Eduardo Bhatia joined LGBT and Dominican activists at a press conference on Sunday, Dec. 4, to criticize the proposed amendments.

“To eliminate these groups as protected categories is to invite the commission of hate crimes in Puerto Rico,” said Ferrer, as Vocero reported on Dec. 4 “It is a setback in the country’s public policy.”

“In an advanced society, this is dangerous for society,” added Bhatia, as Primera Hora reported.

Political affiliation, age and disability would remain part of the revised hate crimes statute if legislators approve the new penal code and Fortuño signs it into law. Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force accused both Senate President Thomas Rivera-Schatz and Fortuño of homophobia.

“Basically they took out the communities hardest hit by hate crimes in Puerto Rico out of the hate crimes statute,” Serrano told EDGE, referring to both LGBTs and Dominicans who work on the island who continue to suffer disproportionate rates of hate and bias-motivated violence on the island. “It’s an outrage and now we’re calling upon the House to restore this to where it should be.”

Nearly two dozen LGBT Puerto Ricans have been murdered on the island since late 2009 in what Serrano and other activists have repeatedly described as an epidemic of anti-LGBT violence. These include gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado, who was stabbed to death before his decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body was dumped alongside a remote roadside near Cayey in Nov. 2009. Three LGBT Puerto Ricans-Alejandro Torres Torres, Karlota Gómez Sánchez and Ramón “Moncho” Salgado-were found dead within a 72-hour period in June.

The article points out that Puerto Rico is being called out by the US Department of Justice for its inadequate response to hate crimes on the island, as well as its record-breaking homicide rate. In addition, leading Fortuño critic and Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez weighed in on these new developments:

US Congressman Luis Guitérrez

“To say this is appalling is an understatement,” [Gutiérrez] said, noting record homicide and other crime rates on the island. “Excluding more people from protections under the law is exactly the wrong thing to do, especially right now.”

“Puerto Rico’s recent rash of hate crimes against the LGBT community is a sad reminder of why hate crimes laws are needed,” added Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Paul Guequierre. “Removing sexual orientation and gender identity from the law would set Puerto Rico back and endanger LGBT people in the commonwealth.”

An equality march is being held in the city of Mayagüez to protest the actions of Fortuño and other Puerto Rican lawmakers who favor the exclusion provision.

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Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) has clearly become the voice of all things Puerto Rican.

Congressman Luis Gutiérrez

This week, on the floor on Congress, Gutiérrez reveals facts about how the Archbishop of Puerto Rico was the latest scapegoat of the the current administration of pro-statehood and Republican Governor Luis Fortuño. Gutiérrez speaks about how the current Puerto Rican government was attempting to silence the Archbishop about his views about Puerto Rico’s political status.

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The political paradox that is Puerto Rico continues to thrive on the island after reaction to pro-statehood and Republican Governor Luis Fortuño has been lukewarm at best.

While the island faces some of the largest unemployment figures in its history, accusations of police abuse from the Department of Justice, charges of Social Security fraud, and angry reactions to spiraling electric bills, last week Fortuño tried to shift the political debate by turning to a topic that has haunted the island for decades: a final decision on its political status. It appears that the gamble has done nothing to help the Governor’s growing unpopularity. Fortuño is facing a reelection bid in 2012.

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño

First, there is the speech he made last week in response to President Obama’s surprising remarks that the United States would only support Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination if the plebiscites being proposed showed an overwhelming support for a specific status option. Historically, Puerto Ricans have been evenly split between their current commonwealth status and statehood.

As The Washington Post reported:

“Let’s be clear: neither Congress nor the president, nor any other power on earth can stop Puerto Rico from expressing itself freely and democratically about its preference regarding its political status,” Fortuño said. “Congress did not act, but we will act.”

Fortuño, whose New Progressive Party supports statehood, said he will present legislation on Wednesday that would allow islanders to vote on Aug. 12, 2012 whether they want a change in status. If they want a change, voters would choose one of three options in a second referendum to be held during the November 2012 general elections.

The three options would be statehood, independence, or a sovereign free association, which differs from the current commonwealth status.

The reaction to Fortuño’s surprise speech was classically and uniquely partisan among the island’s major political parties. Fox News Latino reported:

The chairman of the Popular Democratic Party said Wednesday that Fortuño’s announcement of a referendum was an attempt to distract the public from Puerto Rico’s current ills.

The governor’s proposal shows how divorced he is from the reality of Puerto Ricans struggling to cope with a surge in violent crime, 16 percent unemployment and a crisis in the public health system, Alejandro Garcia Padilla said.

He declined to comment on the concept of Sovereign Free Association, which appears to be closest to his party’s traditional stance in favor of enhanced commonwealth status.

Congressman Luis Gutiérrez

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D), an outspoken critic of the Fortuño administration, said last week that Fortuño did not like the “horror show” that is killing the island’s economy and that the Governor was using the status question to “distract the island’s attention.”

It appears that nothing has been gained so far from Fortuño’s intentions to push the status question back onto the radar, and as a result, the island’s tradition of typical partisanship, accusations, and criticisms continues. Puerto Ricans are also savvy enough to understand that the current political system and its future is still controlled by the US Congress and no one else. Maybe the idea of a bolder move will gain more traction?

In the meantime, Fortuño announced today that he would push for a 15% to 20% reduction in Puerto Ricans’ electric bills over the course of the next 4-6 months, proving once again, that when times are tough, people are worried about paying their bills, not about their political status.

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Leave it to Representative Luis Gutiérrez to leave it all out on the floor of the US Congress this week, in light of a scathing Department of Justice report on the police abuse charges in Puerto Rico.

Gutiérrez, who has been the lone voice of Congress in exposing the hypocrisy of the pro-statehood Republican administration of Luis Fortuño, share his thoughts with his Congressional colleagues.

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This morning, we received this private Facebook message from Tequila Party founder, Dee Dee García Blase (who btw the has blocked us from all her Facebook pages and isn’t even a Facebook friend of us:). A FACEBOOK TIP TO DEE DEE: we received your comments from anonymous sources. Just being good reporters, we guess.

Guess Dee Dee doesn’t like us that much:

Please contact our lawyer and civil rights attorney Shirl Mora James of Nebraska for the Tequila Party if you have any issues. You have slandered me from the beginning. What I say on my own facebook page is my business. You use your venues to cry, and I won’t give you any attention that you seek. What I write on my facebook is my business, and indeed you take issue with the name because you questioned me on the name from the get go and asked me why not the “Rum Party”. As I have told you before, start an Lemonada Party, DO SOMETHING instead of complaining about my efforts. Learn from Puerto Rican Luis Gutierrez who knows and respects Mexican-Americans. You have a lot of growing up to do and I wish you the best. This will be my last response to you.

 Love you too, Dee Dee.

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