Let Puerto Rico choose


(Copyright 1997)


Congress should let Puerto Rico determine its own political future

For 99 years Puerto Rico has been a US appendage. That could change in the coming month. Congress will consider letting Puerto Rico choose its political future in 1998. Good.

The opportunity to do so is contained in a commendable bill crafted by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act. For the first time, Congress would commit to abide by Puerto Ricans’ decision. Either statehood or independence would require three islandwide majority votes and three congressional approvals. Moreover, either option would be allotted a transition period of 10 years.

The legislation also would offer Puerto Ricans the option of continuing as a commonwealth though that’s not envisioned as a final status. Under this selection another referendum would be repeated within 10 years.

Today Puerto Rico is neither fully part of the United States nor fully its own country. Puerto Rico’s 3.8 million residents are US citizens, but they don’t have voting representation in Congress, nor may they vote for the US president.

Puerto Ricans also don’t pay US income taxes, though they do pay Medicare taxes. About 60 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents receive federal welfare benefits, but at levels below those of other US citizens. Both English and Spanish are official languages in Puerto Rico, though Spanish is more dominant than English.

The bill sailed through the House Resources Committee, which Mr. Young chairs. And it has garnered wide bipartisan support, with more than 80 signatories, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Sen. Bob Graham is chief Democratic sponsor in the Senate.

No doubt the bill will have its critics. Some won’t want to offer statehood to a territory poorer than the nation’s poorest state. Others will argue against a culture that, shaped by more than 400 years of Spanish rule, may appear so, well, foreign.

But these arguments are not the issue. Puerto Rico, not Congress, should be deciding whether the island becomes independent or a state. The United States occupied Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines in 1898 as spoils after winning the Spanish-American war.

While Cuba and the Philippines have long gone their own ways - Congress still has final say over Puerto Rico’s fate. Isn’t it high time for the United States to get out of the colony business?

Whatever course Puerto Ricans ultimately choose - statehood, independence (unlikely), or to remain a US commonwealth, Congress should honor it. Congress can do no less on this, the eve of Puerto Rico’s centennial as a US responsibility acquired in the 1898 Spanish-American War.


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