"GIVE PUERTO RICO A CHANCE TO CHOOSE"
(03/02/98, Copyright 1998)
The all-American principle of self-determination makes it quite tough to argue against the right of Puerto Ricans to decide freely what kind of governance and political relationship they'd like to have with the United States. It also dictates that the possibility of statehood not be knocked off the table before the debate over the status of the island even begins, as if Puerto Ricans were intrinsically unfit to be full-voting, taxpaying U.S. citizens.
On that basis alone, the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and scheduled for a House vote this week ought to be approved.
The Young bill would merely start the mechanism for holding a plebiscite on the island, giving Puerto Ricans a choice between independence, retaining the current commonwealth status or launching the process of incorporating Puerto Rico as the 51st state.
Nothing would be quick or automatic: If the statehood option won, the constitutional process--and the ensuing debate over the terms under which Puerto Rico would become a state--would take years, maybe decades.
Indeed, the political wrangling has already begun. President Clinton in effect has declared himself in favor of statehood, one suspects, because his party would gain the most by the addition of a congressional delegation from the island.
A confidential study, however, also advised Republicans to line up behind the statehood option as a way to regain some of the Hispanic sympathy and votes the party has lost as a result of its anti-immigration positions. Others in the party argue that statehood is inconceivable for such a culturally distinct territory.
Within Puerto Rico itself there is hardly anything that inflames passions such as the debate over the status of the island, particularly now when the pro-commonwealth and pro-statehood factions are practically even in the opinion polls. In a 1993 referendum, the commonwealth side came out ahead by only 2 percentage points.
For a plebiscite to mean anything it has to be scrupulously clean. That begins with full disclosure of all contributors to the campaigns for each side; lawsuits already have been filed against the island governor for using government funds to promote the pro-statehood side. An accurate representation of the choices on the ballot--and the implications of each--is also essential. Anything less would not advance Puerto Rican self-determination.