Portland Oregonian, Portland, OR



(07/30/98, Copyright © 1998 The Oregonian)

Summary: Arguments on questions of statehood, independence or commonwealth status don't have simple answers

Last weekend, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans rallied, on the island and in some mainland U.S. cities, to mark the anniversary of the invasion of Puerto Rico by U.S. troops at the end of the Spanish-AmericanWar.

One hundred years ago, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines -- the last remnants of the Spanish empire that once ranged from Tierra del Fuego to Colorado -- were taken by the United States. Of the three, only Puerto Rico remains under the American flag.

Whether it should remain so, and in what form, is the issue that has consumed Puerto Ricans for a century. Should Puerto Rico remain a commonwealth? Should it become a sovereign republic? Or the 51st state?

The issue is a mere blip on the radar screens of most Americans. But at some point, the Puerto Rican question is going to become a major issue here in the States. In March, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that calls for a binding plebiscite that would allow Puerto Ricans to choose an option. The bill has stalled in the Senate. So last Saturday, Gov. Pedro Rossello announced that a non-binding referendum will be held in December.

The December ballot will undoubtedly be mostly ignored by most Americans, since it will be non-binding. But if the Senate ever gets around to approving a referendum that counts, Americans are going to sit up and pay attention, because there is a possibility that a Spanish-speaking tropical island will become as much a part of the United States as New Hampshire.

It's a complicated question, with sensible arguments on all three sides.

For independence: Whatever its present status and despite Rossello's politically motivated claim to the contrary, Puerto Rico is a Latin American nation. It has a language, tradition and culture that make it more like Mexico or even Spain than like New Hampshire or even Texas. So why should it not be in charge of its destiny as much as Mexico or Spain?

Against independence: As surely as Puerto Rico is culturally and linguistically a nation, it is not a nation in the full sense of the word. To be a sovereign nation requires a desire of the people to be sovereign, and Puerto Ricans plainly do not want independence -- just 5.4 percent voted for it in 1993. There is also the risk of losing the U.S. subsidies and tax breaks that give Puerto Rico a higher standard of living than most of Latin America.

For commonwealth: Remaining halfway between independence and statehood is the best of both worlds. The system brings economic aid from the federal government and the political protection of the world's most powerful country, yet provides Puerto Ricans with a measure of self-rule and cultural independence.

Against commonwealth: Remaining halfway between independence and statehood is the worst of both worlds. Puerto Ricans must fight in American wars but have no say in Congress and cannot vote for president. The island is no more than a colony, ruled from abroad.

For statehood: Puerto Ricans would become full participants in the affairs of the world's superpower, with all the financial and political benefits that come with being part of the United States. Culturally, Hispanic traditions and the Spanish language in Puerto Rico are strong enough to survive statehood, yet Anglo traditions and the English language in the United States are strong enough to insure that the presence of one small, Spanish-speaking state would not destroy national unity.

Against statehood: Puerto Rico is too culturally and linguistically distinct to be a state in the American union. And that is said as often by left-wing Puerto Rican independence proponents as by right-wing American congressmen. 1998, King Features Syndicate Inc.

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