Portland Oregonian


(06/20/98, Copyright © 1998 The Oregonian)

Quote: "This is a bill to let the Puerto Rican people decide what they want to do. . . . what our relationship with the United States is going to be." Jos A. Rivera, national chairman, Republican National Hispanic Assembly

The 3.8 million people on an island south of Florida cannot vote for their nation's president. They serve in the military but are subject to federal laws they have no hand in writing.

Cuba, you say? No, it's the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, U.S. territorial possession, and its residents, who are citizens of the United States, haven't missed the irony.

"We . . . champion democracy throughout the world, yet in our own backyard . . . we have not let the people of Puerto Rico make up their minds as to what they want to be," says Jos F. Nio, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

With the help of some fair-minded legislation, that ought to change.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in March providing a plebiscite for Puerto Ricans to vote their choice between continuing commonwealth status, statehood or independence.

Written by Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House committee overseeing U.S. territories, and co-sponsored by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., the measure should have passed handily.

Unfortunately, the debate was heavily influenced by English-only proponents and some members of the Republican Party who fear that if the island nation became a state, it would lean toward the Democratic Party. The measure passed, 209 to 208.

Those arguments now threaten to keep a similar measure from coming to a vote in the Senate. They shouldn't.

The language issue is emotionally charged on both sides. But it boils down to this: Puerto Rican leaders know that English deficiency restricts one's ability to prosper in America. In 1993, Puerto Rico passed a law saying its two official languages were English and Spanish. Last August, English language requirements in schools were strengthened.

Presumed political affiliation shouldn't have any quarter in the debate, but given that politicians are involved, it does. This is where Republicans may be missing the boat. Latino voters in this country have shown themselves to be a diverse group, supporting many conservative agendas. Among New York City's Puerto Rican population, for example, Republican Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's tough-on-crime stands have been hugely popular.

A third argument in favor of giving Puerto Rico the plebiscite is economic. Although its residents are denied congressional representation, they pay only local taxes but no federal income taxes.

While that would seem to be a benefit for Puerto Rican residents and businesses, officials visiting Portland last week say it hasn't been. New investment is reluctant to come to Puerto Rico because there is no clear picture of the island's economic future or its relationship to United States, they say.

Of course, the third choice on the Puerto Rican ballot would be independence from the United States (which would still require the approval of Congress), but that choice finished a distant third in earlier non-binding votes in the commonwealth.

Independence would be a poor choice for Puerto Rico, but it is time to let the island decide its fate. In July, Puerto Rico will have been a U.S. possession for 100 years, having been ceded by treaty at the end of the Spanish-American War.

The Senate version is awaiting action by the Energy and Natural Resources committee. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman, should move the bill to the floor for a vote. It's time for the United States to get out of the colony business.

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