The Press-Enterprise Riverside, CA

"Asking the Puerto Ricans"

(03/09/98, Copyright 1998)

With the debate swaying like a palm tree in a tropical breeze, a House bill to allow Puerto Rico to start the process toward statehood passed last week by a one-vote majority, 209-208. But Puerto Ricans are not of one mind when it comes to setting sail on this course.

For all the reasons proponents can list for joining the union (including federal voting rights and a six-member congressional delegation), there are just as many reasons to remain a commonwealth (retaining many rights and U.S. financial support but paying no federal income tax).

But 1998 marks the 100th year the Caribbean island has been an American possession and many believe that the time is now.

While the current House bill enjoyed bipartisan support, it proved troublesome for predictable partisan reasons: Statehood would add six Democrats to the congressional delegation; Puerto Ricans would not buy into an English-only amendment on the primarily Spanish-speaking island (Spanish and English are the official languages).

It is always surprising just how sticky these issues can become, even though the United States has a time-tested mechanism for statehood. Many remember the testy debates over Alaska and Hawaii (though once it was over, many wondered why it hadn't been done years before).

Put a finger into the warm breeze and one gets the feeling that Puerto Rico likely will opt to keep the commonwealth status it has enjoyed since 1952 (though perhaps by default since the status will remain the same if none of the three choices - commonwealth, statehood or independence - garner a majority). And, don't forget, a plurality of voters in 1993 opted for commonwealth.

The independence movement is alive for a strident few. But all Puerto Ricans have to do is look at their hungry neighbors in Haiti or the Dominican Republic to know they don't want to board the ship to independence.

And status quo (via commonwealth) is a sweet deal. The economy is sound, American business based on the island gets a tidy tax break and Puerto Ricans can travel freely to the U.S. to visit relatives or vacation.

In any event, a centennial vote has been called and Puerto Ricans will have a grand opportunity to send a signal for statehood. Should they not - for the second time this decade - it will be time to put the statehood issue to rest for a long while. Congress' delayed reaction

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