The Hartford Courant


(03/15/98, Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 1998)

Puerto Rico is like a lover the United States has had for years but refuses to either marry or set free. She's gorgeous and irresistible, but she speaks with an accent. Mom and Dad wouldn't approve.

The Republican and Democratic platforms have supported Puerto Rican self-determination since Harry S Truman was president. Yet Congress and island politicians have wiggled out of that commitment, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is following tradition.

Mr. Lott is bottling up a bill already approved by the House to give Puerto Rico a say in determining its political status through a plebiscite that would be held before the end of the year. The Mississippi Republican's statement that the Senate's calendar may be too crowded to allow debate this year is unconvincing.

The United States seized Puerto Rico 100 years ago in the Spanish-American War. In 1917, Congress declared Puerto Ricans to be American citizens, subjecting them to the draft and federal laws. Under the non-binding United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act that Mr. Lott is stalling, if either statehood or independence achieves a majority vote, the president and Congress -- if they so choose -- would develop a 10-year transition plan after which they would give final approval to the status change.

In the past, U.S. officials and Puerto Rican supporters of continuing the present commonwealth status cited concerns about harming each other's languages and cultures as grounds to avoid resolving the issue. What received only passing mention is that under the commonwealth arrangement, U.S. companies that built operations in Puerto Rico were exempt from federal taxes on their earnings.

But Congress has voted to phase out the tax breaks by 2006, which means Puerto Rico has but eight years to find another source of economic support. Mr. Lott and the Senate can't drag their feet much longer. Puerto Ricans on the island should be allowed to decide whether they prefer to remain as a commonwealth, to become sovereign or to become the 51st state.

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