IN OUR VIEW
The 51st state // Bill could lead to statehood for Puerto Rico
(Copyright 1997 Lancaster Newspapers)
The American flag may need a bit of a redesign within a decade. The stars and stripes will have to be reworked to fit in a 51st star if a bill now before Congress is approved. The bill, many agree, will lead to statehood for the island of Puerto Rico. It's about time this matter was clarified. Since 1917, Puerto Rico has existed in political limbo as a U.S. commonwealth. This status is a vestige of colonialism that is an anachronism at the end of the 20th century and unconscionable as we enter the 21st. Puerto Rico residents are American citizens by birth, but they cannot vote in national elections. They pay no U.S. income taxes (there are island levies), and receive little of the economic benefits of citizenship.
Although Puerto Ricans have twice voted (marginally) to retain commonwealth status and against moves toward statehood, the new measure - which has 75 high-powered congressional sponsors - stacks the deck in favor of statehood. It also has the enthusiastic support of Puerto Rico's governor and its non-voting representative in Congress.
Carlos Romero-Barcelo, the representative, is also a former mayor of San Juan and governor of the island. He is an eloquent advocate for statehood and put his thoughts this way on the floor of the House of Representatives:
"Our nation cannot seek to promote and at times enforce democracy elsewhere in the world while it relegates 3.8 million of its own citizens to indefinite second class status, disenfranchised, discriminated against and unable to exercise the most basic right in a democracy, the right to vote and participate in its government."
If approved by Congress, the bill mandates a referendum in Puerto Rico before the end of 1998. Voters would be able to choose between statehood, separate sovereignty as an independent nation and commonwealth.
It's unlikely that voters will choose independence. All they have to do is look westward to the struggling Caribbean nations of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to get an idea of what that road might be like.
If Puerto Ricans vote to retain commonwealth status, the bill requires that the referendum be voted on again every four years - a sort of keep-voting-until-you-get-it-right provision.
So statehood becomes the likely choice; if not now, soon. The bill calls for a 10-year transition and implementation period to work out thorny issues, including those pesky income taxes. On the issue of language on an island where Spanish predominates, the bill is clear: English will be the official tongue. It's ironic and fitting - when talking about a Caribbean island - that the bill calls for the referendum and other costs involved in the mechanics of statehood to be paid out of excise taxes on foreign rum.
Although statehood has opponents both on the island and the mainland, the bill presents a great opportunity for Puerto Rico and a greater one for the United States. We should welcome this island as our 51st state.
Puerto Rico - its land and people - represent a resource that can only strengthen us. There will surely be hurdles of poverty, language and culture to overcome as the assimilation occurs, but these will be outweighed by the energy this expansion can bring to our union.