Allentown Morning Call



(03/06/98, Copyright 1998)

Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States at the close of the Spanish-American War 100 years ago. Puerto Rico became a commonwealth in 1952. This week, the House of Representatives moved toward another chapter in the Caribbean island's history, voting to give Puerto Rican voters three choices: continued commonwealth status, statehood, or independence.

A decision this momentous ultimately should be guided by the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, and a referendum will help do just that. Following passage in the House, the decision whether to hold a referendum on the island's political status now moves to the Senate, where Majority Leader Trent Lott, unfortunately, has made no commitment. The people of Puerto Rico should have an opportunity to register where they stand on an issue with important implications for their daily lives. These are the possible outcomes of a referendum:*With continued commonwealth status, Puerto Rico would remain self-governed in internal affairs. Residents would retain U.S. citizenship. Levels of federal U.S. benefits would continue to be determined by Congress. Puerto Ricans can be drafted to fight in U.S. wars, but they cannot vote in presidential elections, nor do they have a vote in Congress.

*With statehood, U.S. federal spending in Puerto Rico would increase from $10 billion to $14 billion annually, according to congressional estimates. Puerto Ricans would start paying federal income taxes, about $49 million annually. The 51st state would get six seats in the House and two in the Senate. (The island now has one non-voting delegate to Congress.) Plus, residents could vote for America's president and vice president.

*With independence, Puerto Rico would have full authority over its territory with its own citizenship. The new country would be responsible for its own fiscal, immigration and trade policies.

In the last referendum in 1993, voters narrowly favored continued commonwealth status over statehood. This week, House supporters of the new referendum eked out a one-vote margin of victory. They also squelched a heavy-handed amendment making English the official language on an island where only 25 percent speak English, while 98 percent speak Spanish. English already is used in the federal courts and U.S. agencies, and is taught in Puerto Rican schools.

If voters in a special referendum chose either statehood or independence, Washington would devise a plan to carry out that wish within 10 years. Then, the transition plan would be subject to a second vote on the island. However, if the vote were for a continued commonwealth, another referendum would be scheduled within a decade.

This is how it should be. Puerto Ricans on the island and in the Lehigh Valley are divided on the question of the commonwealth's future status. With nearly 4 million persons, Puerto Rico has a larger population than 26 states. The complex issue of its future deserves careful study, and a decision in keeping with the wishes of the island's inhabitants.

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