The New Republic

Admit it. (Statehood for Puerto Rico)

Charles Lane

(04/28/98, Copyright © 1998 The New Republic Inc.)

Puerto Rico will not become the fifty-first state–at least not soon. On March 4, House Speaker Newt Gingrich arranged a vote on a Republican sponsored bill to authorize a binding island-wide referendum on Puerto Rico's political status this year. The bill says that, if a majority votes for statehood, a transition period as long as ten years would begin, culminating in Puerto Rican statehood early next century. The measure passed, but only by 209 to 208–a vote so close, and so rancorous, that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott decided to shelve the issue.

Still, it is bound to come up again, if only because leaders of both parties seem to feel–correctly or not–that offering Puerto Rico statehood is a way to court Latino voters. Sooner or later, Congress, and the Puerto Ricans themselves, will have to decide: Should what is now an autonomous "commonwealth" become a full-fledged state?

One way to answer that question is to ask another one: What would Puerto Rican statehood really change? Economically, not much. Opponents point to widespread poverty and welfare dependence among the island's 3.8 million inhabitants, who are U.S. citizens and are therefore eligible for food stamps and the like. Critics note that, for complicated legal reasons, Puerto Rico's poor would be entitled to even more under statehood. However, this would be offset by an increase in tax revenues; under the commonwealth arrangement, Puerto Ricans don't pay federal income tax. On balance, the General Accounting Office says, statehood would cost the U.S. $3 billion or $4 billion per year, hardly enough to bust the giant federal budget.

In one important political sense, too, statehood would be less of a departure than is commonly supposed. Statehood proponents make much of the fact that commonwealth status denies Puerto Ricans the right to vote for president and members of Congress. But, as an individual, no Puerto Rican is denied that right. As citizens, Puerto Ricans can move to the mainland and instantly become eligible to vote in all elections. This is one reason there are so many Latino voters for Republicans and Democrats to court by offering statehood to Puerto Rico! Statehood would result in only two major changes. The first is that it would create six new seats in the House of Representatives and two new seats in the Senate. In the recent debate, some Republicans fretted about creating so much new legislative power for liberal Puerto Rican Democrats, who would presumably use their clout to advocate ever-expanding welfare benefits for the folks back home–and for minorities on the mainland.

But would they really? Puerto Rico has a highly developed political culture, with a vigorous two-party system and a strong strain of social conservatism. Although the commonwealth currently has strict gun-registration laws, it also permits school prayer and provided government vouchers for kids to attend private school. Anyway, safe liberal Puerto Rican Democratic House districts already exist–on the mainland. Representative Nydia Velazquez–a liberal Democrat who opposed the statehood bill–owes her seat to the creation of a majority-Latino congressional district in New York City in 1992 (a bit of racial gerrymandering, by the way, that was approved by the Bush administration's civil rights division).

The second major change statehood would bring about is the creation of America's first non-English-speaking state. Proponents tend not to emphasize the disquieting fact that three-quarters of Puerto Ricans speak only Spanish, but there is no denying it. To some degree, Puerto Rico would indeed be "another Quebec"–a "distinct society" whose claims for official recognition of its language could lay the basis for wider efforts to make America, like Canada, a bilingual country. Thus, unlike past admissions of such formerly Spanish but sparsely settled territories as New Mexico and California, admitting Puerto Rico as a state would raise basic questions about the essence of the American nation. Is it a cultural community defined by a common language and historical experience? Or is it a political community defined by adherence to a "civil religion" of individual freedom and equality before the law?

But even this difficult challenge is hardly apocalyptic. During the last three decades or so, the U.S. has absorbed millions of non-English-speaking, nonwhite, non-Christian immigrants, with considerable discomfort in some quarters, but nothing close to a national crisis. Even if Puerto Rico does become "another Quebec," would that be so terrible? Despite the perennial English-French quarrel, Canada has stayed together as one of the freest and most prosperous nations on earth. And it has done so without a unifying ideology as powerful and flexible as America's.

It all depends on how we go about adding Puerto Rico to the union. Statehood could go sour only if its advocates allow the more extreme forms of modern multiculturalism to define the terms of the island's accession–i.e., if statehood is treated as an opportunity to enshrine group rights as opposed to individual ones. If, on the other hand, the statehood legislation is written to provide for a reasonable degree of linguistic accommodation by Puerto Ricans–widespread English instruction in the schools, the use of English for government business on the island–and if Puerto Ricans know, in advance, that this is what they will be voting for, then there should be little danger that Puerto Rican statehood will become the opening act of America's balkanization, much less of its conversion into a republica latina.

For mainland Americans, Puerto Rican statehood would pose a unique and difficult, but potentially rewarding, test of the culturally transcendent capacity of America's democratic creed. Properly managed, the experiment would carry relatively little downside risk. Indeed, the real threat statehood poses is to the indigenous culture of Puerto Rico, which was, after all, settled a century before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. As the last century's history of association between island and mainland has shown, cultural influence runs in both directions, but the power of American popular culture dwarfs that of traditional Latin culture. Over the years, the salsa-dancing mainland has become a little bit more Latin, but Puerto Rico has become a lot more "American." Pro-statehood sentiment has been steadily growing, as measured by the nonbinding plebiscites periodically taken on the island. If the island's inhabitants vote to give up a little bit more of their cultural sovereignty in return for the blessings of full membership in the American political community, there's little reason to turn them away.

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