Times Union (Albany, NY)

Main Editorial

Let Puerto Rico decide


(Copyright 1997)


A bill in the House would permit a vote on statehood, but Representative Solomon is concerned about bilingualism Next year will mark the 100th anniversary since Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States after the Spanish American War. It will also mark the first time in 500 years that Puerto Ricans will have a say in their future, provided the U.S. Congress approves legislation now winding its way through the House. It should. The House measure, which would permit a referendum by Dec. 31, 1998, enjoys wide bipartisan support. Two powerful Republicans, Speaker Newt Gingrich and New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, are on board, as is the House minority leader, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. The chief sponsor is, fittingly, Republican Congressman Donald Young of Alaska, one of the youngest states in the union.

If a referendum is held, Puerto Ricans would have three options from which to choose: The status quo, which is continued commonwealth status; statehood; or independence. Surveys show the Puerto Rican population is about equally divided on the first two options, while only a tiny number -- about 4 percent -- favor independence. If the final tally comes out for statehood, Congress would still have to vote its approval. And if that were to occur, Puerto Rico would become the 26th largest state in the union, with a population of 3.7 million.

Despite the long list of supporters for the House measure, Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-Queensbury, chairman of the House Rules Committee, remains wary. He has the power to keep the bill from reaching the floor unless his concerns over language are addressed to his liking. Mr. Solomon fears that the majority of Puerto Ricans still lack command of English, and that could pose a problem if the island were to become part of a nation where proficiency in English is as crucial to success as it is to everyday life.

Mr. Solomon's concerns are well taken, but the language issue alone is no reason to block a referendum. For one thing, English is already Puerto Rico's official language for court documents and proceedings at the federal level. For another, no such requirement stands in the way of other bilingual states, such as Hawaii, New Mexico and Arizona.

Meanwhile, the chances remain high that a majority of Puerto Ricans will vote to retain the status quo, which would render the language question moot. So why not wait until then to debate it?

Why deny a people who have waited 500 years to determine their future a chance to do so?

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