The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi

It's undemocratic to deny American citizens a voice

(09/08/98, Copyright © 1998 The Sun Herald)

One hundred years ago, during the Spanish-American war, the U.S. troops who took over the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico were enthusiastically greeted by most of the islanders. After all, the United States of America represented liberty and democracy to the world; the future of Puerto Rico looked bright, indeed.

A century later, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but they are not allowed to vote in presidential elections or to elect voting representatives to Congress.

Puerto Ricans have fought and died under the American flag in every war since 1917 and are eligible for the military draft, yet they have no voice in selecting the president or the Congress that could send them to war.

Under a government of the people, by the people and for the people, it seems unfitting that the United States has never formally consulted the 3.8 million American citizens in Puerto Rico on their future. Oh, a few elections have been held within the commonwealth, but the voting process, the wording of the ballots and the results have never been recognized by Congress.

For years, Puerto Rico has requested that Congress at least sanction a vote to officially gauge the opinion of the people: Do they wish to remain to remain a commonwealth, become a state, or achieve independence? For years, Congress has given no answer.

This year, such legislation has been approved in the House of Representatives, and its life or death resides in the Senate, specifically in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

If the majority of Puerto Ricans wish to continue their island's status as commonwealth, with limited rights and limited responsibilities, so be it.

But, if a majority selects statehood as a goal -- after weighing the positives against the negatives of federal income taxes and stiffer industrial regulations and taxation -- then Congress should also weigh the positives and negatives and make a decision. Only Congress can decide; a territory cannot make itself a state.

Under the bill, if most Puerto Ricans favor statehood, a lengthy period of negotiations -- spanning a period up to 10 years -- on possible statehood would begin. Only after all terms are agreed upon could Congress even consider legislation to admit Puerto Rico as a state.

Lott has shown little interest in bringing the bill to the Senate floor. He seems to think Americans have little interest in it. But 3.8 million American citizens are vitally interested. After 100 years, they deserve to have their voices heard.

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