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Allentown Morning Call

End Awkwardness With A New Puerto Rico Plebescite


August 19, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Allentown Morning Call. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico is a possession of the United States. We call its status `commonwealth status.` Puerto Rico is not a state of the United States nor is it an independent nation. Its citizens have some of the rights that we Pennsylvanians enjoy, but not all. And it has some of the responsibilities which we Pennsylvanians have, but not all.

Whether or not one shares the presently politically correct view that colonialism is a no-no, colonial status is, in fact, largely a thing of the past and condemned by the modern world order, including the United Nations.

And, to tell the truth, the colonial or commonwealth status of Puerto Rico is a bit of an embarrassment and often leads to awkward situations. Some Puerto Ricans , for example, condemn our use of Vieques , a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico , as a bombing and gunnery range for the U.S. Navy. Indeed, judging by press accounts, it would appear that a substantial number of Puerto Ricans oppose this gunnery range.

Fort Drum is a huge Army facility in northern New York, well known to many from the Lehigh Valley. On summer afternoons and evenings, one can hear the heavy thuds of artillery, and at night can see the flares and again hear the thudding as mock battles are waged in the darkness. These sounds are comforting because they are the sounds of young men and women training to defend our country, and indeed to defend innocent people wherever our national interest or honor and principle require that we do so. The people of New York know it is their duty as citizens to support such activities.

Not too long ago, The Morning Call reported a number of suits by Puerto Rican citizens claiming that U.S. laws should not apply to them. One suit said that it is a violation of human rights that Puerto Ricans should be subjected to the federal death penalty laws.

Now, these are awkward questions because, at their heart, the questions relate to Puerto Rico 's colonial status. Indeed, we have been condemned from time to time at the U.N. because of Puerto Rico 's status.

There are two solutions to this problem, and I recommend that we invite, indeed require, that the present awkwardness be resolved by a new plebiscite in which Puerto Rican citizens would be given only two choices. One choice is to become an independent nation. The other choice would be that Puerto Rico become the 51st state. (The last plebiscite was held in 1998 but the results were somewhat ambiguous. A plurality of people looked at the choices --independence, statehood, commonwealth and `free association` with the United States -- and voted for `none of the above.` Next time, let's make it simpler and conclusive.

I will be quite satisfied with whatever decision the Puerto Ricans themselves choose. If they decide to become a state, so be it. Then it will be perfectly clear that federal death penalty laws apply to Puerto Rico as well as every other state in the Union. It will also be perfectly clear that the Navy's gunnery and bombing range is a duty and responsibility that cannot be shirked, just as Fort Drum is a duty and responsibility of New Yorkers.

Offering this choice to Puerto Rico would solve a number of other problems. It would remove the cloud and the suspicion of neo- colonialism that commonwealth status engenders. It will also resolve a number of economic issues. Under commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans enjoy a number of tax advantages not available to citizens of the 50 states. And Puerto Rican citizens are exempt from a number of responsibilities which the rest of us must shoulder.

Another awkwardness is that under commonwealth status, Puerto Rican citizens do not enjoy all the rights and privileges of other U.S. citizens. For example, they do not have the privilege of voting for a senator or a voting congressman. That's pretty awkward.

Commonwealth status is neither fish nor fowl. I believe it's time for statehood or independence; time for full citizenship with full responsibilities and privileges, or full independence.

The Clinton administration has temporized on all of these issues. Under independence, it would clearly be the Puerto Rican nation's democratic right to choose whatever penalties it likes for crimes committed in Puerto Rico and to defend their nation however they chose, with or without gunnery ranges.

(Charles D. Snelling is an Allentown-based entrepreneur and Republican Party activist. His e-mail address is

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