The Washington Post


Americans Without Full Rights

Monday, February 23, 1998

Copyright 1997, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved

Congress is getting serious about Puerto Rico’s political future for the first time since the united States picked up the island territory in an imperial war with Spain 100 years ago. By a carefully launched bill that may reach the floor early in March, the House would set up a process to let Puerto Ricans choose their future status from among the current "commonwealth," statehood and independence options. This would be no straw poll. The bill would define the details-financial, political, linguistic-of the statehood option favored in Puerto Rico. It would lock the United States into a 10-year transition to put statehood, or another choice, into effect.

The bill, sponsored by House Resources Chairmen Don Young (R-Alaska), cleared his committee 44 to 1. He anticipates serious debate and substantial approval. It could be a great day for democracy. But it also could be a difficult day. There is concern over the political lineup of the two senators and six congressmen who would have to forfeit six seats in the House. There is argument over whether new tax revenues would, as sponsors claim, wash out new social-program costs.

But the hot issue is language. There is support among Puerto Ricans to retain their Spanish-language heritage. Some in Congress, however, would make Puerto Rico the battleground for an attempt to legislate English as the official language of the United States. The young bill undertakes this question chiefly by providing for use of English in the courts and other official venues, while increasing and improving English-language training in the schools. This seems sensible. A strict official-English policy ignores that Washington never asked Puerto Rico to embrace English when it took over the island and when it sent its sons to fight in American wars. Such a policy also ignores the extent to which the United States by practice and culture is already a considerably bilingual nation. Alarms of creating an "American Quebec" are a spillover from the official-English debate.

Puerto Ricans always could get the language of their preference by independence. But that option has never risen above a few percentage points. This makes Congress’s definition of statehood crucial. To put statehood on the three successive referendums the bill calls for but then to burden the option with a provocative English requirement is unfair. It thrusts upon the islands 3.8 million residents a choice between political empowerment and cultural identity. For decades American political leaders held out Puerto Rico statehood as an option. It would be a mockery to load it up with unneeded political accessories the first time it began to look real.

A commitment to common rights, responsibilities and ideals -not a dominant language-bonds Americans. A commitment to democracy should drive Americans to ensure Puerto Ricans full and equal rights as American citizens. It has been, after all, 100 years.

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