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Puerto Rico Searches for Its Future

by Myrna Torres

May 31, 1999
Copyright © 1999 NEWSDAY INC.

Myrna Torres is chairwoman of the National Organization for Statehood for Puerto Rico.

Should Puerto Rico become a state, gain total independence or retain its current status as a U.S. commonwealth? The 4 million U.S. citizens of the island were given a chance to vote on those questions Dec. 13. But the vote came in a referendum that was not binding and not sanctioned or overseen by Congress.

On May 6, the United States Senate held a hearing to review the results of that referendum. Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello testified: "Our nation's most basic civic values demand that neither this committee nor the Senate nor Congress as a whole shirk the constitutional duty to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory." Asked what he wanted from the next Congress, Rossello replied: "A set of options that Puerto Rico can vote on." Some senators seemed committed to action, but expressed concern that momentum for a congressionally-mandated vote in Puerto Rico may be slowed by the upcoming U.S. election campaign.

Originally a spoil of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory for 100 years. Puerto Ricans can be drafted, but they do not have the right to vote for president and have no representation in Congress. Ironically, in every war this century, Puerto Rican soldiers have been among the dead and wounded, fighting alongside their mainland brethren on behalf of democracy.

Under the territories clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress is constitutionally bound and morally obligated to periodically revisit the status of its territories. But Congress has largely ignored this obligation. In March of last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing a congressionally-sanctioned referendum on the island to be held by Dec. 31, 1998. The Senate, however, refused to consider the legislation.

The island held a referendum on its own, but as has happened with previous referenda, in the absence of official congressional oversight, politics took over. There were great battles as to how each status option should be defined on the ballot. The Commonwealth Party, which favors continuation of the current status , sought a definition of commonwealth that sounded glorious, but which included promises of goodies that would never have been allowed by our Constitution, for Puerto Rico or for any state, for that matter.

Why should the people of Puerto Rico be led to believe that they are voting for a special relationship with the United States that could never actually exist? When the Commonwealth party was not allowed to use this definition, its leaders steered voters toward the "none of the above" column on the ballot. Those voters joined many others - protest voters and opponents of the current administration among them.

In the end, 50.2 percent of the population voted for "none of the above." This was a sad disenfranchisement of half of the Puerto Rican population, who voted, in essence, for air.

Had Congress done its duty and overseen this process, and ensured that the ballot definitions were constitutionally viable, this opportunity would not have been wasted. The fact is, what stymied the Senate in considering self-determination legislation is a fear that the process might lead to statehood.

The arguments against statehood vary. One is economic. Puerto Rico is too poor, say detractors, and would be a drain on the U.S. economy. Yet a recent study by two Harvard economists suggests that both the U.S. Treasury and the economy of Puerto Rico stand to benefit from statehood.

Another argument is cultural. "These people don't speak our language," say some. The "English Only" crowd would like to single out Puerto Rico for an English language requirement - a requirement imposed upon no other U.S. state or jurisdiction.

This is a specious argument. When Puerto Rican soldiers went to war for the United States, even died for the United States, nobody asked them what language they spoke. Besides, Puerto Rico is already committed to English. English is taught in Puerto Rico from second through 12th grade, and is the language of federal courts and agencies, local government affairs and commerce.

Among those voting for an actual status preference in the December election, more than 90 percent chose statehood . But the fact is, even if the people of Puerto Rico supported statehood in a congressionally-sanctioned referendum, it would not automatically make the island a state. Rather, it would set in motion a long, probably 10-year, process in which the American people would have time to engage in a healthy debate.

Congress has never officially sanctioned a referendum on the island, a means by which true sentiment for or against statehood could be measured. The waters have always been muddied by absurd, impossible status definitions advanced by over-promising political parties. The water ran muddy again on Dec. 13.

It's terribly wrong to continue to block Puerto Rico from even taking the first step, to never allow the American citizens of the island to make a clear choice. It is past time for Congress to fulfill its constitutional obligation to Puerto Rico and give the voters a chance to exercise their right to self-determination.

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