The Hartford Courant



(03/03/98, Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 1998)

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill by which Puerto Ricans would choose their political future by the end of this year. The alternatives are the status-quo commonwealth arrangement, statehood or independence.

What separates this process from previous straw polls is that Congress would commit to dealing with the wishes of the Puerto Rican people within six months of the vote. Although the referendum would not be binding on Congress, it could not be ignored by the lawmakers.

It has been 100 years since the United States seized Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. The measure introduced by Rep. Don Young of Alaska details the financial and political conditions under which statehood or independence would be implemented over a 10-year transition period, if Puerto Ricans so choose.

Congress should approve the bill.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth and serve in the armed forces. Although tens of thousands have died fighting for U.S. causes, Puerto Ricans on the island have never voted for their commander-in-chief.

Resolving the Caribbean island's status has taken on greater urgency because Congress is phasing out the main underpinning of the Puerto Rican economy. It has abolished the law that allowed U.S. firms to open manufacturing plants on the island without having to pay federal taxes on their earnings. More than a third of Puerto Rico's work force is employed by these firms.

The tax breaks and a modified form of self- government were granted in the 1950s at a time of high unemployment and nationalist unrest on the island.

Mr. Young's bill is supported by both statehooders and those who favor independence. The statehooders are convinced they can win a majority of the votes in the plebiscite. The independentistas are betting that, even if statehood won, Congress could never bring itself to grant it.

Opponents of the bill in Washington find the idea of a Spanish-speaking state troubling. They want to amend the bill to impose English as the official language of Puerto Rico. Such imposition from Washington would be divisive and unnecessary; as a practical matter, Puerto Rico is bilingual.

But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act simply sets up the framework for Puerto Ricans to express their preference. For the world's leading democracy to preach the gospel of free elections and self-determination to foreign nations and deny those rights to a group of its own citizens would be hypocritical. Congress should put its rhetoric to the test.

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