The New Republic
Admit it. (Statehood for Puerto Rico)
(04/28/98, Copyright © 1998 The New Republic Inc.)
Puerto Rico will not become the fifty-first stateat 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 208a vote so close, and so
rancorous, that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott decided to shelve the
Still, it is bound to come up again, if only because leaders of both
parties seem to feelcorrectly or notthat 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 homeand 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 existon the
mainland. Representative Nydia Velazqueza liberal Democrat who
opposed the statehood billowes 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
accessioni.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 Ricanswidespread English
instruction in the schools, the use of English for government business
on the islandand 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.