St. Petersburg Times

"Give Puerto Rico a say"


(03/03/98, Copyright 1998)

America has treated Puerto Rico like a political foster child for the past 100 years. The United States meets some of the territory's needs and has final say over its fate, but has never embraced the island as a full-fledged member of the American family. Puerto Rico's 3.8-million residents are considered U.S. citizens, but are not allowed to vote for president. They collect welfare and Social Security benefits, but have no representation in Congress. A growing number of Puerto Ricans are dissatisfied with their island's ambiguous status and want to redefine the relationship with the mainland. They deserve a voice, and a choice.

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to begin debate this week on a bill that would provide both, and lawmakers should give it a fair hearing. The legislation, titled the United States-Puerto Rico Status Act, has strong bipartisan support, including that of both of Florida's U.S. senators, Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Connie Mack.

The measure would give the people of Puerto Rico the opportunity to vote on whether to maintain their commonwealth status, pursue statehood or become citizens of an independent nation. It would establish a congressionally recognized process for Puerto Rico to hold a vote on whether it wants the right to self-determination.

Statehood would be no more guaranteed than independence, no matter how Puerto Ricans vote on the issue. For either to become reality, a majority of residents would have to approve the idea in three separate votes, which would then be subject to congressional approval. If either option survives that process, any changes would be phased in over a 10-year period. It is also possible that a majority of Puerto Ricans would vote to maintain the status quo.

The bill has been criticized by those who oppose offering statehood to a territory that has a lower per capita income than the nation's poorest state. Others feel that since both Spanish and English are official languages on the island, Puerto Rico is too "foreign" a place to become the nation's 51st state. The merits of those concerns should be debated later. Neither is relevant to the issue at hand. Puerto Ricans deserve some say in their political future and this bill provides them with a means to speak out at the ballot box.

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