Sun-Sentinel, Ft. Lauderdale



(04/01/98, Copyright 1998)

In Puerto Rico, the powerful presence of the United States cannot be ducked. The U.S. Coast Guard is there. U.S. Customs, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, a U.S. Attorney's Office _ all function in Puerto Rico, neither timidly nor unobtrusively.

English is spoken, not necessarily fluently, by about half the 3.7 million residents. American companies, American fast-food restaurants, American dollars (the official currency) are there in large numbers. Yet the Puerto Rican culture is distinctive and treasured, more Latin American than U.S. American, and to some mainland Americans it can seem strange and off-putting. This double life, part American and part Puerto Rican, festers at the core of the debate about Puerto Rico's future: Should it continue its current status, become a state or seek independence?

Right now, Puerto Rico is a nearly indefinable hybrid, officially called since 1952 a "free associated state" of the United States. The easiest way to define Puerto Rico is by what it isn't: neither a state nor a nation, neither a mistreated colony nor a fermenting revolutionary center.

For a full century, since Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War, the island has struggled with the reality of its existence under American control. Puerto Ricans don't pay federal taxes, but they aren't allowed to vote in federal elections or to receive full federal benefits unless they move to the mainland.

A segment of Puerto Ricans depends on U.S. food stamps, while a middle class has grown and prospered. As citizens of the U.S. from birth, Puerto Ricans have freedom to move to the mainland, or back to Puerto Rico, at any time. Puerto Ricans have voted twice in non-binding referendums, the latest time in 1993. The results, showing the islanders' divided state of mind, were 48 percent for continuing the current status, 46 percent for statehood and just 4 percent for independence.

Now there could be a binding referendum, if the U.S. Senate follows the House in approving a bill setting up a vote. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., argues convincingly that his bill should pass as a recommitment to the principle of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, "that people should have a say in their destiny."

If statehood were approved in a Puerto Rican referendum, that would be just the first in a series of steps required over 10 years, including a final vote by Congress. The Puerto Ricans should have the chance to vote officially on their future, and if they do, either statehood or a continuation of the current status should be acceptable to other U.S. citizens.

Puerto Ricans ought to have the right to help shape their own future. A referendum is warranted.

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