Chicago Tribune




(Copyright 1997)

The prickly and awkward union between Puerto Rico and the United States began in 1898 much like a shotgun wedding--Spain just handed the island over to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War--and the relationship hasn't gotten noticeably mellower or more intimate over the years.

Congress next month will consider a proposal by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) that would let both partners re-examine and perhaps restructure their relationship. Young proposes to hold the first congressionally sanctioned plebiscite on the political status of Puerto Rico, to offer voters in the island a choice of statehood, independence or the status quo, commonwealth. The proposal has attracted a diverse, bipartisan group of 80 co-sponsors in the House and deserves passage.

The commonwealth arrangement between Puerto Rico and the U.S. was meant as a provisional, makeshift arrangement en route to a permanent solution. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, can be drafted into the armed forces and can vote in presidential primaries. But they don't pay federal taxes, vote in general elections for president or get representation in Congress.

Such an odd, neither-taxation-nor-representation arrangement, however, seems to suit the majority of the island just fine--although by ever narrower margins. The latest polls in Puerto Rico show the commonwealth vs. statehood debate quite close, at 43 to 39 percent respectively, with 4 percent favoring independence and the rest undecided.

But if self-determination is an easy principle to preach, engineering a plebiscite that accurately gauges popular opinion in Puerto Rico--with a minimum of partisan flim-flam--is harder.

The status question inflames passions on both sides of the ocean. It awakens fierce nationalist resentments among many Puerto Ricans while kindling suspicions among some mainlanders who fear that such a stubbornly exotic, Spanish-speaking outpost could never be fully absorbed into the American union.

Charges already are flying that the plebiscite--which is being promoted by pro-statehooders--is stacked in their favor.

Critics say, for instance, that a tendentiously worded "commonwealth status" option to be presented to the voters suggests that it might lead to loss of U.S. citizenship.

Also, two lawsuits have been filed against Gov. Pedro Rosello, a fervent supporter of statehood, charging use of government funds to mount a slick public relations and lobbying blitz in Washington in favor of the plebiscite. A full disclosure--by all sides--of who is bankrolling what and whom could easily clear the air.

Puerto Ricans have the right to self-determination, and this would be but a first step. If either the statehood or the independence option wins, the president and Congress would appoint a commission to explore how and under what conditions it would be carried out. Partisans on both sides, however, must endeavor to make the plebiscite process as transparent as possible so the results can also be beyond question or reproach.

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