Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer,
Puerto Ricans In Civic Action
This year Puerto Ricans mark the centennial of the Spanish-American war with decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand we rejoice in the American citizenship that was bestowed on us by the United States, our rulers for the last 100 years, and with it the freedoms of the democratic system the nations constitution brought to our island.
Conversely, this anniversary represents just another 100 years, 500 years in all, that our island has lived under Spanish and American systems where full political rights of self-government and equal participation in the institutions that set and enforce the laws of our daily lives have been denied its residents.
Compounding the ambiguity surrounding this celebratory event are two conflicting pieces of evidence of both our desire and reluctance to fully embrace the centennial. While the benefits of our statutory incorporation into the American body politic have been defended by our young men and women in wars abroad since 1917, we have remained secondary citizen beneficiaries of the rights they fought to preserve. Nonetheless, an overwhelming percentage of our population wants the ties to the US made permanent.
But this ninety-five percent of our resident base is almost evenly divided on how to get this accomplished. Commonwealth proponents advocate a final relationship solution founded on perpetuation of the status quo. The other half, however, sees the realization of Puerto Ricos economic and political goals in statehood. Both embrace American citizenship as the cornerstone of these options.
Just as the resolution of Puerto Ricos relationship with the US is defined differently by the islands two major status forces their strategy to attain their objectives is also markedly at odds. And, 1998 promises to be the defining year in which one or the other, perhaps neither, will find out if their dreams for a Puerto Rico modeled after their ideal image becomes reality.
Since the status battle is being mainly fought in Congress, it's in that arena where the final outcome will be determined among all combatants. Congress alone has the sole power under the Constitution's Territorial Clause to affect Puerto Rico's status. Under the Young Bill, HR 856, the 3.8 million US citizens of Puerto Rico in consultation with Congress will be given a chance to determine the island's political status once and for all.
Commonwealth adamantly opposes the bill and the plebiscite it mandates. Its backers claim on-going status legitimacy as a result of their plurality victory in the 1993 plebiscite. What they seek is an enhanced commonwealth status with all the indicia of statehood, including full funding of federal programs, but without representation in Congress, the presidential ballot or the payment of federal taxes.
Statehooders meanwhile see the passage of HR 856 as a watershed in Puerto Rico's relationship with the US as it provides the first congressionally approved status definitions capable of constitutional implementation. And only statehood offers the political and economic benefits, as well as their obligations, that Puerto Ricans have been seeking for more than half a millennium.
Who will prevail in 1998? There can be only one answer. HR 856 will be passed by the US House of Representatives and the status plebiscite promised for this year will be held as scheduled.
Why? Its clear that Congress is neither able nor inclined to expand the commonwealth status in accordance with the terms so disingenuously promoted by the status supporters, the PDP. Constitutionally there is no leeway to create a new political entity along the lines of a sovereign non-state entity within the United States. An entity that would enjoy all the protections and the full benefits -- political and economic -- of the US Constitution, including permanent citizenship, yet have veto power over American laws it didnt like nor be obligated to pay its fair share of federal upkeep.
Politically, the American people would rebel at such a suggested arrangement even if it was legally feasible. In a period of self-reliance and budgetary belt tightening the creation and sufferance of a permanent ward of the United States enjoying full access to the US Treasury and the luxury of picking and choosing which laws it wants to follow would be the height of political folly and suicidal for any Washington legislator to countenance, much less promote.
That's why the only option open to Congress is passage of HR 856. At once it removes the colonial stigma attached to America's administration of the largest disenfranchised territory in the Western World and offers Puerto Rico's residents the opportunity to obtain first class citizenship either as a state of the Union or as an independent nation.
What's more, it is the only way in which the political and economic burden that is today's Puerto Rico can be turned into an American asset. Make no mistake about it, the Puerto Rico deceptively, wrongly and self-servingly portrayed by Commonwealthers in their libelous, relentless and ethically bankrupt campaign against HR 856 cannot hope to continue to enjoy political support in Congress or among the American electorate.
In effect, HR 856 offers Puerto Rico and Congress an escape valve from what otherwise will eventually amount to a forced disposition of the island territory. A unilateral congressional grant of independence fostered by a growing impatience with carrying an economic burden that the American people no longer wish to subsidize.
Thus, only through a statehood plebiscite decision or, much less likely, an independence vote will Puerto Ricans have any control over their political destiny.
And, to those naysayers who claim that a vote for statehood would be nothing more than an empty gesture since Puerto Rico's quest for a fifty-first star would be rejected, I vehemently disagree. The case for statehood, once selected by our voters, will not fall on deaf ears.
As with previous territorial transitions to statehood status, proponents will make the economic and political cases for Puerto Rico's cause. They will point to the fairness of their petition, the commitment to American values of our people and the willingness to assume both the burdens and benefits that entry into the Union entails.
To critics who decry the economic assistance that a new state of Puerto Rico might require one only needs to point out that other new entries into that elite Union were also helped along and that the dynamics of the change in status propelled economic growth and a transition from debtor territory to creditor state in a short period of time.
Finally, to those who say that the United States will never admit a state whose culture and heritage may be at odds with the majority of the populace one only need point out that Hispanics will soon be the nation's largest minority and that by 2030 they will represent half the population of several states, including Texas.
Puerto Rico may very well be the first predominantly Hispanic state of the Union but it won't be the last!
Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer can be reached for comments by contacting us at Info@PuertoRico-Herald.org .