U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott says there's not enough
time to consider the issue of Puerto Rico's status before senators
head home in October.
That's not persuasive. After all, the U.S. House of
Representatives managed to do that in a matter of days, approving
it in March.
But even more important would be the symbolism of giving Puerto
Ricans a voice in determining their own form of government. One
hundred years ago this month, the United States occupied that
island during the Spanish-American War.
Puerto Rico now holds U.S. commonwealth status, which allows it
self-government but with obligations to the United States. That
means, for instance, that Puerto Ricans pay taxes to their
government but not to the U.S. Treasury. At the same time, they
hold U.S. citizenship.
It's time that Puerto Rico's status is clarified definitively,
whether the choice is to remain a commonwealth, embrace statehood
or seek independence.
Thus the Clinton administration was right last week to push for
swift action in the Senate.
Self-determination stands as one of this nation's most
important ideals, stemming from the American people's struggle to
chart their own political course more than 200 years ago.
Puerto Ricans also deserve that right.
A plebiscite in Puerto Rico five years ago merely whetted the
appetite of people for a substantive vote. The plebiscite - a
glorified opinion poll - underscored the intensity of the debate
over Puerto Rico's future. Voters mostly sided with two options -
commonwealth and statehood - with commonwealth receiving slightly
The House bill would allow an official plebiscite, presenting
Puerto Ricans with the three choices mentioned above.
If the option of commonwealth were chosen, of course, it would
be automatic because it would mean keeping things as they are now.
Much more work would be required if voters were to choose
independence or statehood. Statehood would be the most complicated,
with the United States having the final say.
The job of working out the details of a transition plan would
fall to President Bill Clinton and the Congress. That plan then
would be presented to Puerto Rican voters. The series of
negotiations and votes could take years to unfold.
The process will take even longer, though, if the Senate
doesn't get off the dime. Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who supports the
plebiscite, argues that the votes are there, that it's just a
matter of getting the Senate to vote.
But that means overcoming a big obstacle - Mr. Lott. He appears
not terribly interested in Puerto Rico, which is probably the real
reason it is being crowded off the Senate's agenda.
Mr. Lott should reconsider. His position, which places him
between Puerto Ricans and self-determination, creates ill will and
delays an overdue decision.