The Washington Post


A Full Choice for Puerto Rico


Copyright 1997, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved

Some of the Republican rank and file -- though not the speaker and majority leader -- are balking at coming to terms with the notion of authorizing an early referendum to allow Puerto Rico to choose permanently the form of its relationship with the United States. These Republicans have no problem authorizing Puerto Rico's nearly 4 million American citizens either to confirm the current well-worn status known as commonwealth or to strike out on the path to independence. But statehood? The word has been flung about in status discussions for decades, but its costs and benefits have not been definitively assessed, and the United States has never made a formal commitment to accept Puerto Rico as a state if the island territory asked. This time the president and Congress want to be serious, and as a result some friction is setting in.

Language is only part of the problem, but a large part. Skeptics see the Puerto Rican attachment to Spanish as culturally unacceptable and politically dangerous -- harbinger of hardening ethnic tension on a national scale. A tussle is going on over the language in the Young bill, the referendum vehicle driven by House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).

The worldly benefits of speaking English, as distinguished from the traditional comforts of speaking Spanish, are familiar to most Puerto Ricans. But it is very late in the day for Washington to impose a hard English-language emphasis on a place that was not consulted on language or on much else when the United States took it over from Spain in 1898. It tempts charges of bad faith to say statehood is an option and then to demand prompt and far-reaching changes in the still-evolving pattern of English-Spanish usage that has developed over a century's time.

Another Republican worry is that a state of Puerto Rico would flood Congress with Democratic legislators. As it happens, similar predictions of political tilt in Alaska and Hawaii were confounded by events. Some in the GOP suggest a strong stand on Puerto Rican statehood is the key to winning the crucial Hispanic vote in major states.

A further concern is the additional cost of extending full social benefits to a place notably poorer than the poorest state. This is troublesome, but in any fair scheme of things, it cannot be allowed to overwhelm the central consideration, which is political. Puerto Ricans are American citizens without full political rights --specifically, without a vote in the structure that makes decisions about their lives. This began by imperial accident a century ago and must be corrected by democratic design now.

We are not here arguing for statehood; we are waiting for the president and Congress to spell out the options that would be put to Puerto Ricans in a referendum. That is Washington's first task, and with it comes an ironclad obligation to honor whatever Puerto Rico's choice turns out to be. But for that to happen there must be absolute clarity on what are the costs and benefits and the legal and political implications of each option that the people of Puerto Rico are to weigh.

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