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Greensboro News & Record




April 5, 1999
©Copyright 1999 Greensboro News & Record

For reasons largely political, the U.S. Senate will convene a hearing May 6 to study Puerto Rican statehood. It's an exercise to placate Puerto Rican "statehooders" who, in a referendum in last December, lost their quest to become America's 51st state.

The December referendum was the second time in six years that Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood. And for understandable reasons. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but do not pay federal income tax. They also receive $10 billion annually in federal social benefits. It's not a bad package.

But "statehooders" insist it smacks of colonialism. They call themselves "second class citizens" because they cannot vote for the U.S. president or Congress.

Yet the island's 3.8 million people are perfectly free to declare independence. Does that sound like colonialism? Last December's referendum gave Puerto Ricans three choices: 1) independence 2) statehood , or 3) preserving its commonwealth status. Voters wanted to remain a commonwealth; they did not want to pay federal income taxes or lose their cherished Spanish language.

Language would be a colossal sticking point. Though some states - Florida and California, for example - have thousands of Spanish- speaking residents, it's not the same as having one state - Puerto Rico - whose official language would be Spanish. Look no farther than Canada to see how French-speaking Quebec is fracturing Canadian unity.

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War. Its culture and heritage are Hispanic, and too different to blend with the mainland.

But Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, a statehooder, refuses to accept defeat. And that's where politics kicks in. Al Gore named Rossello to be chairman of his presidential campaign on the island. Rossello will raise money and urge Hispanic voters on the mainland to support Gore.

Presumably the payoff will be another referendum if Gore wins.

Most Republicans oppose Puerto Rican statehood , fearing the island would vote Democratic. Yet Republicans and Democrats alike believe that Puerto Rico is too different in language and culture to become our 51st state. In addition, Puerto Rico would be our poorest state, requiring large infusions of federal welfare.

Yet if statehood is a bad idea, independence would be fine. Then, statehooders would have to stop braying they're second-class citizens.

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