The San Francisco Chronicle


Stars and Stripes For Puerto Rico?

(03/27/98, Copyright 1998)

THERE IS a powerful case for Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state, as Washington considers the lengthy process designed to bring the island into the union. But the arguments to date have not answered a fundamental question: do an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans want statehood?

For 100 years, the island has lived in limbo as a commonwealth with only partial rights and duties. Puerto Ricans have voting rights, though not in presidential races. It has an elected representative in Congress, but without a vote. Puerto Ricans are exempt from federal income taxes, yet eligible for $10 billion a year in aid.

But both Republican and Democratic leaders feel the time has come to end this fish-nor-fowl existence. By a one vote margin, the House endorsed a process that calls for a plebiscite by the end of the year on statehood, the present commonwealth status, or independence. The measure needs Senate approval, where the political winds may not be favorable.

The debate has touched on several sore points. Half the island's people speak Spanish only, and this fact troubles English language proponents on the mainland. If Puerto Rico becomes a state, it would immediately become the poorest one and qualify for more aid. Statehood advocates counter that the island has paid a "blood tax" since World War I by sending recruits to fight in America's battles. Its streets may ring with Latin music, but its offices are linked to America's economy.

There still remains the question about serious commitment. In 1993, Puerto Rico held a non-binding vote and chose to stick with commonwealth status by a 48 to 46 percent margin over statehood. The balance of the votes went to independence, an option with little appeal. The latest polls show the population remains divided. The statehood process should be about welcoming in enthusiastic newcomers, not a divided family. Even if Puerto Rico chose statehood by a bare majority, would this number be enough to signal Puerto Rico's firm purpose? Statehood is irrevocable, but what if a political reversal produced a secessionist boomlet?

Promising statehood, as the House vote does, is far in advance of the real issue. Puerto Rico should decide for itself about joining the union. After that, there can be time to redesign the flag.


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