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Press For Official Vote


December 16, 1998
©Copyright 1998 The Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rico held a vote on its status this week, and a lot of people -- nearly 71 percent of registered voters -- showed up, clamoring for a clue to their island's future. They didn't get much of one, though, and that's the real downside of the way the vote was handled.

The frustration extends to Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, whether they condemned or cheered the outcome.

A paper-thin majority of voters in Puerto Rico supported the "none of the above" option, which would keep the situation as it is, with the island as a U.S. commonwealth. That status allows Puerto Ricans a considerable degree of independence, with certain obligations to the United States.

Most other Puerto Ricans voted for statehood, although the percentage was lower than in a similar vote five years ago, contradicting pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello's contention that statehood prevailed.

There's something else to consider, though: The vote wasn't binding. So, other than providing a sense of what voters felt, it won't necessarily lead to any action.

That probably suits the United States Senate -- particularly Majority Leader Trent Lott -- just fine. Mr. Lott stubbornly stymied an attempt to have the Senate take up a U.S. House of Representatives' bill that would have made the vote official. He said there wasn't time to bring up the issue.

That's not just fine.

It was wrong for Mr. Lott to block Puerto Ricans from having a chance to determine their political destiny.

And it would be wrong to let the indecisive result of a nonbinding vote lead to a sense of defeat and, thus, inaction.

Rather, now is the time for Puerto Ricans who care about their island's political fate to press for the right to decide their status in an official vote. Florida's lawmakers in Congress who support such an opportunity have an obligation to help.

Right now, Puerto Ricans find themselves in a political limbo -- stuck with a status that many find objectionable and unable to do anything about it.

Sure, Puerto Ricans who dislike that system can opt out and assume all of the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship by moving to the mainland. Those living in one of the 50 states -- including those in Central Florida -- might be said already to have chosen statehood.

That's not satisfying or sufficient, though. Puerto Ricans deserve a chance to chart their own course. Self-determination as an ideal flows too strongly through Americans' political blood to be withheld from a prominent part of the nation's citizenry.

The Senate should make the time to discuss Puerto Rico's status, and Puerto Ricans should be granted a meaningful opportunity to vote on it.

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