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        The Chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, has proposed that Puerto Rico first be made an incorporated territory of the U.S. before statehood is considered. Murkowski included that proposal in his draft of a status bill for Puerto Rico, released on July 31.

        This is not the first time incorporation status for Puerto Rico has been proposed before statehood for the island is considered. On November 22, 1993, congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced legislation (House Resolution 3715) to provide constitutions for the development of 14 articles of incorporation for U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas. On March 19, 1997, it was announced that a bipartisan status bill for Puerto Rico had been introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Robert Graham, D-Florida. In that bill, an incorporation status for Puerto Rico leading to statehood was proposed.

        For the benefit of those not familiar with "incorporated" and "unincorporated" territorial status, here is what these terms mean. In 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling on the famous Insular Cases, drew a difference between incorporated and unincorporated territories. It was held that all rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution applied to incorporated territories, and that in the case of unincorporated territories, only fundamental rights, as distinguished from formal or procedural rights, apply. Only Congress has the power to decide whether a territory has an incorporated or unincorporated status. Incorporated territories are on the road to statehood after going through the experience of democratic self-government. Unincorporated territories are not considered to be on the way to statehood.

        There is a third class of U.S. territories comprising wholly unorganized, unincorporated dependencies controlled not by Congress but by some agency of the executive branch. Such is the case of American Samoa, Wake Island and other very small islands in the Pacific. They are ruled by the U.S. Department of Interior and their people are regarded as U.S. nationals, but not U.S. citizens. Alaska and Hawaii were the last fully incorporated territories of the United States. Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are still unincorporated territories.

        Going back to the incorporated status proposed for Puerto Rico leading to statehood, I strongly feel it should be rejected for Puerto Rico, as it could last for years, as was the case with Hawaii. Incorporation, said Young, would give the U.S. territories "full constitutional rights, full self-government and guaranties of U.S. citizenship." Subsequently, in a revised resolution, incorporation was replaced by political integration, and other status options were added, such as free association and independence.

        Being an incorporated territory is certainly better than having an unincorporated status. There is no doubt that incorporation provides for eventual statehood. I believe that all but 19 States of the Union were once incorporated territories. The idea of a pre-statehood step was to prepare an incorporated territory for statehood and subsequently prove to Congress its readiness and qualifications for statehood before admission to the Union. But an incorporation status has not been always a requisite for statehood.

        The presence of rich natural resources in Nevada, Texas and California was a decisive factor in expediting their entry into the Union from unincorporated territories directly into statehood. Nevada, for example, had less, by far, than the 127,381 residents required to become a state when on October 31, 1864, President Lincoln proclaimed it as the 36th State. But, of course, Nevada had rich silver and gold resources, and both the North and South needed those resources to pay for the cost of the Civil War. Regarding Texas, in addition to its vast oil reserves, the Southern states wanted Texas as a state because it favored slavery. It became the 28th State by a joint resolution of Congress on December 23, 1845. In the case of California, its gold, oil and natural gas reserves played a key role in expediting its entry as the 31st State on September 9, 1850.

        With regard to Puerto Rico, I believe incorporation status is too little too late. Our island is by far more ready than many of the incorporated territories were on the mainland when they became States. It fully meets statehood requirements, and there is no justification to place Puerto Rico now in a pre-statehood stage when it can swiftly move directly into statehood.

        It is true our island does not have oil, silver and gold. On the other hand, the U.S. Congress should not overlook the following about Puerto Rico:

        1. Because of its strategic location in the Caribbean, and contrary to what some people say, it still plays a key role in the U.S. national defense and in providing the facilities to keep the U.S. armed forces in a permanent state of strength and readiness in light of dangerous regional situations. This was confirmed in the Persian Gulf War and not long ago in the U.S. involvement in Haiti. And speaking of national defense, in the wars in which the U.S. has been involved, Puerto Rico's contribution has been greater than that of 22 States.

        2. Puerto Rico is among the largest customers of the United States in the world, making annual purchases of some $10 billion in U.S. goods, which represent more than 200,000 jobs on the mainland.

        3. The contribution of Puerto Ricans in science, medicine, law, literature, music, arts and sports has been greater than that of many of their fellow U.S. citizens on the mainland.

        One final word. Let's stop saying that proposed federal legislation on Puerto Rico's status provides for a "plebiscite." This is incorrect. It provides for a "referendum," the results of which will be subject to further action before what is agreed upon is submitted to our people in a "plebiscite," the results of which will be final. The same applies to a proposed status "referendum" in Puerto Rico at the end of this year, which will not be a "plebiscite" because the results will not be final. By the same token, the November 1993 "referendum" or "status consultation" is still wrongfully referred to as a "plebiscite."

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