The Plain Dealer - Cleveland, OH



(03/04/98, Copyright (c) The Plain Dealer 1998)

This year is the centenary of Puerto Rico's acquisition by the United States. For some Americans, that is reason enough to try to resolve the territory's ambiguous political status once and for all: The symbolism is appealing.

To others - advocates of statehood for the islands - questions of fairness and justice are involved. They seek a means to give people who currently are U.S. citizens with limited rights an opportunity to fully participate in the American system.

Those pushing statehood for Puerto Rico appear to be the most avid supporters of legislation that makes its way to the House floor today with an impressively bipartisan array of backers.

Its chief sponsor is Rep. Don Young, Republican from Alaska, the penultimate state admitted to the union. Speaker Newt Gingrich also has attached his name. It should be noted, however, that opposition to statehood has split the GOP, primarily because of concern that Puerto Rico would go Democratic in national elections.

Some Republicans also question whether English would come under assault as the language of official business if bilingual Puerto Rico became a state - hardly a trivial concern, but one that seems to be addressed adequately in the Young bill.

Statehood, however, is only one of three choices Young extends to Puerto Ricans in a referendum that would be held by year's end. The others are independence and the continuation of commonwealth status.

The last has been preferred by Puerto Ricans in three previous plebiscites, though by decreasing margins. Its detractors say commonwealth status is colonialism in disguise. Puerto Ricans, they concede, enjoy U.S. citizenship and don't pay federal taxes. But they also have been subject to the draft and in general are controlled by a Congress that has no voting members from Puerto Rico.

But odd as it might seem to some who follow nationalistic trends throughout the world, the least appealing option for voters has been outright independence. It received 4 percent of the vote in a 1993 referendum, and it would be a major surprise if it did much better now. Far from being a potential American Quebec, as some have suggested, Puerto Rico seems destined to favor a U.S. connection of one kind or another.

Yet proponents of a new plebiscite are on surest ground when they say that it is time for the United States to make a serious effort to engage Puerto Ricans in a process of self-determination. They could add that, as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans deserve an opportunity to elect to enjoy the full benefits enjoyed by most of their compatriots - and assume the obligations that go with them.

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