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Puerto Rico: The 51st State?

The Bishops of the American Island Are Solidly Neutral on Statehood Question

by Lou Panarale

October 1, 1998
©Copyright, The Catholic Standard and Times

WASHINGTON (CNS) - The bishops of heavily Catholic Puerto Rico are staying out of a battle in the U.S. Congress that could set up a historic referendum allowing Puerto Ricans the right to decide their jurisdictional fate, including possible entry as the 51st state.

The Unite States - Puerto Rico Political Status Act (H.R. 856), sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), will expire unless the Senate approves it before an expected mid-October recess.

In a cliffhanger vote last March, the legislation passed in the House, 209-208, after Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) changed his vote at the last minute from "no" to "yes".


Referendum Before 1999?

The legislation stipulates the referendum must be held in Puerto Rico before the end of 1998 or the island will remain a commonwealth for the time being.

The island's 3.8 million Puerto Ricans, most of them Catholic, are statutory U.S. citizens, which means they cannot vote for a U.S. president.

However, they can travel to the United States' mainland without passports and live here. They pay a scaled-down version of U.S. federal income tax and 200,000 of them have served in the U.S. military since World War I.


No Vote in Washington

Their representative on Capitol Hill is Carlos Romero-Barcelo, called a "resident commissioner". He can serve on committees, sponsor legislation, speak out on the House floor and offer amendments, but he can vote only in committee and not in the full House.

"I don't have the vote, yet I represent six times more people than any House member," Romero-Barcelo said.

Two of Romero-Barcelo's most vocal opponents of H.R. 856 have been Puerto Rican Americans - Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

Velazquez urged House members "not to be fooled" into thinking H.R. 856 was for self-determination. "The American people should know that this bill was designed to guarantee statehood for Puerto Rico," she said.

Gutierrez called H.R. 856 "a flawed bill (which) distorts the definition of commonwealth, the favored status of the plurality of Puerto Rican people."

The bill offers three options: retention of commonwealth status; entry as the 51st state; or sovereign independence.

  • Commonwealth status would allow Puerto Rico to continue the current structure of internal self-government, with Congress having authority to exercise full powers over it.
  • Independence would establish that Puerto Rico eventually becomes a sovereign republic with full authority and responsibility over its own territory and population.
  • Statehood means Puerto Rico would eventually become a fully integrated U.S. state with all the responsibilities and privileges accorded to all U.S. citizens.

Romero-Barcelo told Catholic News Service (CNS) that Velazquez and Gutierrez were wrong in claiming the bill was slanted in favor of statehood.

If the referendum ended with no majority for any of the three choices, Puerto Rico would remain a commonwealth, he said. "The commonwealth can win even if it loses."

Romero-Barcelo said he believes the Catholic hierarchy in Puerto Rico has not always been neutral on the three choices, and at times has been critical of the pro-statehood movement.

Despite Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. commonwealth, the Church there is oriented toward Latin America. Its bishops are considered part of the Latin-America hierarchy, have their own bishops' conference and are not part of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Romero-Barcelo said he thinks Puerto Rico's three bishops may fear they will "lose their status" if Puerto Rico becomes a state and their Church falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Catholic bishops.

CNS spoke by phone with Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio, apostolic administrator of Caguas, Puerto Rico.


Three Legitimate Choices

"All three choices are in accord with the Church's teaching. We have no problem with Puerto Ricans choosing whatever they want," said Bishop Corrada.

"If Mr. Romero-Barcelo thinks Puerto Rico's Church hierarchy is hesitant about being neutral, he is mistaken," he said. "I can assure you that I and the other two bishops in Puerto Rico are well versed on the situation.

"We all believe that a diversity of opinion is legitimate, and the Church affirms that."

Bishop Corrada referred to the 1983 Declaration on the Political Situation of Puerto Rico, in which Puerto Rico's bishops wrote: "We want to establish clearly at this time that none of the three political alternatives...are in conflict with the teachings of the Gospel."

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