Congress should give Puerto Rico a realistic choice


(Copyright 1997)


It’s no accident that Puerto Rico’s red, white and blue flag is so similar to the US flag. After all, the island has been under this nation’s control for almost 100 years.

Given that much shared history, isn’t it time to consider seriously adding the single star on Puerto Rico’s flag to the 50 now gracing Old Glory?

It’s a question Congress is wrestling with. HR 856, "The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act," is making its way up the legislative food chain. Key Republicans, along with many Democrats, are backing the bill, but some Republicans are wondering if it’s a bigger bite than they want to chew.

More than 80 representatives, including top Republicans Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay and Democrats John Lewis and Patrick Kennedy have signed on to Alaska Republican Don Young’s proposal to hold a vote in Puerto Rico on the island’s status.

The choices: remain a US commonwealth, become an independent nation or enter the Union as the 51st state. The plebiscite would be in 1998.

If Puerto Ricans opted for independence or statehood, the president would have 180 days to submit a 10-year transition plan to Congress. A 1993 referendum was tainted by controversy over who got to vote and the unconstitutionality of the choices, which helped make the close outcome confusing.

What to do with Puerto Rico has long been among those political questions hanging far in the wings. On occasion, Republicans have dragged the issue to center stage.

In the waning days of his administration, President Ford tried to push statehood, for which President Bush also argued in his final State of the Union address.

But, now some Republicans are balking, fearing that Puerto Rico will be a mother lode for the Democrats. English-only proponents also object to the island’s fierce insistence on speaking Spanish along with English.

Hidden underneath some of the criticism, Republican backers of Young’s bill say, is racism fueled by the island’s deep poverty.

Over half of Puerto Rico’s 3.8 million people live below the poverty line, and less than half of adults over age 25 are high school graduates.

While these issues are clearly troubling, how rich or educated a person is has never been an issue when it comes to citizenship and shouldn’t be when it comes to statehood.

Congress should give Puerto Rico the realistic choice to stand pat, join the Union or strike out on its own.

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