The Washington Post

Puerto Rico's Moment

(07/18/98 Copyright © 1998, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved)

THIS IS A key moment for Congress to bear down on the Puerto Rico question, which has troubled Americans through the full 100 years since the United States seized the island from Spain. The now nearly 4 million residents are American citizens but are denied the full political rights of citizens in the 50 states. They sacrifice for the nation in war but have no vote in the government that makes their national laws. Gentle as the denial of rights may now seem, it is still fairly described as colonialism. Speaker Newt Gingrich was on the mark when he said earlier this year of Puerto Rico, "I just think personally that to keep a colony is a very dangerous idea in the 21st century."

The solution to the rankling way in which Puerto Ricans are treated has long been evident but only now is being seriously pursued. The first requirement is to afford islanders a full range of democratic choices of political status: either (1) continuing and enhancing the current commonwealth or (2) moving to statehood or (3) to national sovereignty, the latter either by independence or in association with the United States. The second requirement is to ensure that the executive and legislative branches in Washington define precisely the terms of each choice they offer Puerto Rico and commit themselves to carrying the choice out.

President Clinton has committed himself to self-determination legislation this year. The House passed a bill in March, and the Senate has been working on a measure that is similar but not as extensive. Keeping up the legislative pace is what the Puerto Rican issue is now about.

In the past, mainland Americans were not prepared to bestow equal rights on an island of a different cultural, social and economic composition. But changes in immigration patterns and social attitudes have produced and sanctioned a broader ethnic diversity in the American population, and have at least lowered barriers to Puerto Ricans. Earlier, the easy assumption was made that Puerto Ricans would vote Democratic. Tellingly, the Senate advisory committee on Hispanic issues, chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch, noted just last month that Alaska had been expected to send Democrats to Congress and Hawaii Republicans, and both predictions proved wrong. His committee noted that a recent poll indicated "strong support in Puerto Rico for conservative principles (e.g. 82 percent oppose abortion and 91 percent favor school prayer)."

The bills cooking on the Hill would not bestow a particular status but would simply set up a process for Washington to define Puerto Rico's choices and for Puerto Ricans to choose by plebiscite. The process would require of Congress two more bills and of Puerto Ricans three separate votes; a phase-in period, should independence or statehood be selected, would run to 2010. This is a sensible procedure that would end the unfairness and embarrassment of denying one innocent and deserving group of American citizens their essential rights.

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