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Puerto Rico: A Moment Lost


December 24, 1998
©Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

WHAT WAS meant to be a defining moment for the American territory of Puerto Rico dissolved into confusion in a status plebiscite held on Dec. 13. The island's governor hoped the vote would start a process leading from the existing "commonwealth" to statehood. But for the third time, statehood got less than half the vote -- 46.5 percent. The biggest vote, 50.2 percent, went to a "none of the above" catch-all category supported in good part by pro-commonwealth voters who were indulging a best-of-both-worlds fantasy definition of commonwealth (many privileges, few obligations) that Congress would never approve. The independence count fell to 2.5 percent.

The plebiscite was a flop. It measured only erratically, not conclusively, the sentiment on the island. It left Puerto Ricans perhaps more divided. It left Congress without clear guidance for its own deliberations on the future of a century-old colonial territory whose nearly 4 million residents, while they enjoy local autonomy and federal benefits, are second-class American citizens, denied a voting part in the national government that rules them.

But it is not only the Puerto Ricans who have been unable to get their act together. Congress is at similar fault. In the run-up to the plebiscite, for instance, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wrote bipartisan legislation committing the United States to take the key step of putting into binding effect any legitimate Puerto Rican status choice. The Young bill passed the House, but Trent Lott and Don Nickles mischievously blocked it in the Senate, leaving Puerto Rico in the lurch.

Here lies the fault that must be remedied. Congress must select and fairly define the Puerto Rican status choices it would be prepared to accept. These would include a version of commonwealth that enabled Puerto Rico to be governed in a fully democratic manner, statehood, and nationhood of one sort or another -- independence or "free association." It would then be up to Puerto Ricans to make an informed and realistic decision among them. The decision and the resulting transition may take years. But nothing less will satisfy the obligation to convert an imperial property into a place of dignity for American citizens who are equal in rights to all others.

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