The New York Times

A Choice for Puerto Rico

(03/09/98, c. 1998 New York Times Company)

In a historic move, the House narrowly passed a bill last week to give 3.8 million Puerto Ricans the right to vote on whether the island should retain its current commonwealth status, seek statehood or become independent. The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, sponsored by Representative Don Young of Alaska, requires that a vote be

held on the three options by the end of this year. If either statehood or independence receives a majority, the President and Congress would be asked to develop a transition plan, and give final approval to a status change within 10 years. If none of the options receive a majority vote, the current status would be unchanged and another referendum would be held within 10 years.

Both the Republican and Democratic platforms have long supported Puerto Rican self-determination. Yet Congress has repeatedly failed to give islanders a say on their political status. With House passage of the bill, its future now depends on Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, who has been unenthusiastic about the issue. The Senate would dishonor democratic values by shelving this bill.

Puerto Rico was acquired by the United States 100 years ago as part of the spoils from the Spanish-American War. Its residents are American citizens who have been subject to the draft and Federal laws. But they do not pay Federal income taxes, do not elect members of Congress and cannot vote for President. This diminished status does have support among islanders who worry that statehood would jeopardize the island's distinctive heritage.

But language issues and other important questions can be addressed when Puerto Ricans debate their choices. The proposed bill would allow them to decide their future with the assurance that Congress would not ignore the result. In a 1993 nonbinding plebiscite, 48 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for commonwealth status, 46 percent for statehood and 4 percent for independence. A majority may still prefer commonwealth status, and even if islanders vote for statehood or independence, Congress would be able to manage the transition. In any case, the Senate would be wrong to prevent political self-determination for American citizens when it supports that right for people elsewhere in the world.

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