Orlando Sentinel



(03/04/98, Copyright 1998)

People's right to choose their form of government long has been a cherished principle in the United States and, to a large extent, in much of the rest of the world.

That right also should extend to the people of Puerto Rico.

And what better year for that to happen than this, the 100th anniversary of the United States' wresting of that island from Spain in the Spanish-American War?

The U.S. House of Representatives is preparing to consider giving its blessing to an official vote by Puerto Ricans on Puerto Rico's status. A House decision could come as early as today. The U.S. Senate will take up the issue later.

Puerto Rico now is a U.S. commonwealth, which means a combination of self-government and some obligations to Washington.

For example, Puerto Ricans collect their own taxes and run their own affairs but are American citizens and may serve in the U.S. military.

A Puerto Rico plebiscite in 1993 that wasn't authorized by Congress - and, thus, amounted to little more than an opinion poll - showed voters to be pretty evenly divided between remaining a commonwealth and becoming a state. Still, more Puerto Ricans opted for commonwealth than anything else.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, would start a process that could lead to a concrete resolution of Puerto Rico's status.

Essentially it would authorize another plebiscite that would give Puerto Ricans three choices: independence, holding on to commonwealth status or beginning an effort to try to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

The only one of those options that would be automatic, if chosen by voters, would be going with the status quo. The others would take time - particularly statehood, which would require U.S. approval.

In the event Puerto Ricans were to choose statehood, President Clinton and Congress would have to devise a transition plan. Puerto Ricans then would vote on that plan. Altogether, discussions could take years.

Mr. Clinton appears tilted in favor of statehood. Members of Congress are divided - and not along party lines, as underscored by a Sentinel news report this week.

In Florida's congressional delegation, for example, only a handful of the state's representatives has decided to support the measure. A few are opposed, and most are undecided.

That indecision regards just the issue itself. Things could get a lot more complicated if congressmen start loading the measure down with amendments. One that has been discussed a lot is an amendment that would declare English to be the official language of the United States.

A congressional nod for Puerto Ricans to vote on their status should be as uncomplicated as possible, allowing them to decide for themselves what their future will be.

The House and Senate shouldn't hesitate to clear the path between Puerto Ricans and self-determination.

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