Myriam Marquez

"Statehood or independence? That's choice for Puerto Ricans"

(Published in The Orlando Sentinel, January 5, 1998)

This year marks 100 years of political limbo for Puerto Rico. If the U.S. Congress does its duty, though, this year also will usher in a new political order for Puerto Ricans -- statehood or independence.

As Ruben Berrios Martinez sees it, commonwealth ought not be an option in any vote.

Writing in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Martinez, a senator in Puerto Rico's Legislative Assembly, makes a strong case for independence.

Martinez, who heads the Puerto Rican Independence Party, blames most of Puerto Rico's social ills on the 100-year history of U.S. control over the island. ``More than one-third of our population has emigrated (to the mainland) in the last 40 years, mainly seeking work. The island has among the highest crime and drug addiction rates in the world -- treat a nation like a ghetto and it will behave like a ghetto,'' Martinez wrote.

Harsh words but all too real to those who have lived Puerto Rico's history.

Indeed, statehood supporters use the same statistics to make their case for Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state.

But the existing commonwealth arrangement with the United States, as much as Martinez argues against it, seems to be the most popular option for Puerto Ricans. Last August, for instance, results of a poll in Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, showed that support for statehood had dropped by 10 points to 36 percent from the 46 percent who had supported statehood in a 1993 plebiscite. The poll showed 45 percent supporting the commonwealth status and only 4 percent wanting independence.

Commonwealth never was meant as a permanent arrangement, though. U.S. geopolitical interests made control of Puerto Rico a U.S. priority at the turn of this century, but no longer. ``The invasion and acquisition of Puerto Rico, which guarded the eastern approaches of the Caribbean Sea, (were) inextricably tied to the decision to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans,'' Martinez noted.

Even when the United States granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship in 1917, Puerto Rico's elected House of Delegates unanimously was against it.

Through World War I to the Cold War, Puerto Rico served U.S. interests. But it wasn't only the island's strategic location that helped the United States militarily. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought to protect U.S. interests.

Last year, Congress took tentative steps to grant Puerto Ricans the right to choose their destiny. A U.S. House of Representatives committeee approved legislation for Puerto Rico's final status, but the bill never got to a vote in the full House or the Senate.

Under the legislation sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Young of Alaska, Puerto Ricans would choose among statehood, independence or existing commonwealth. If Puerto Ricans were to choose commonwealth status, then periodic elections would be held until a majority chose either statehood or independence.

Unfortunately, many Republicans -- and several Democrats, too -- in Congress seem queasy about allowing Puerto Ricans such a vote.

Puerto Rico's Spanish language and culture are a major concern -- both in Congress and on the island. And recently, Puerto Rico's Supreme Court recognized Puerto Rican citizenship, which would seem at odds with U.S.citizenship.

"Assimilation is unacceptable to Puerto Ricans, including statehooders," Martinez wrote.

After almost 100 years of U.S. meddling into Puerto Rico's affairs, though, the United States owes the island of 3.4 million people more than lip service about their status as a nation or a state. It's way past time for Puerto Ricans to choose.

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