New York Post on Puerto Rico Statehood Bill, July 14, 1997

The Puerto Rico question

Few mainland Americans think very much about Puerto Rico. That gap in their attentions may end only when they wake up to discover that the flag has 51 stars.

Because of legislation now quietly wending its way through Congress with the support of the Republican leadership, decisions made on the island in the next year or so could have profound consequences for the future of Puerto Rico as well as for the United States as a whole.

The House of Representatives may vote as early as this week on a bill to set up a plebiscite on the island's political status. Passage of this act by both houses, plus the President's signature, would oblige the U.S. government to honor whichever of three options Puerto Rico's voters choose: maintaining the island's present commonwealth status, independence or entry into the Union as the 51st state.


The legislation has gotten this far without even the pretense of a national debate about whether it is in America's interest to attempt to digest, as a state, a territory whose inhabitants are predominantly Spanish-speaking, far poorer on average than mainland Americans, and more heavily dependent on federal welfare and transfer payments than the residents of the poorest current states. Moreover, the island has a deeply rooted national independence movement -- though recent polls show that to be at a relative ebb.

Puerto Rico's political status has been an issue since the island was ceded by Spain after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917, but residents there have no right to vote in presidential elections or to send representatives to Congress.

Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro J. Rossello sees next year's centennial of Puerto Rico under the U.S. flag as the appropriate occasion for changing the island's legal status. Like his New Progressive Party, he wants Puerto Ricans to choose statehood to replace commonwealth status.

The statehood forces are gaining ground -- unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. When Puerto Ricans last voted on the issue, in 1993, the commonwealth forces prevailed over statehood by a very narrow 2 percent.

But statehood advocates have been pounding across the message that their way means greatly expanded eligibility for federal benefits.


"If it were a state," writes former Gov. Carlos Romero-Barcelo in his frankly titled book, "Statehood Is for the Poor," "Puerto Rico would be absolutely assured of enormous amounts of federal money -- money the island needs in order to come to grips with its many problems. But without statehood, such large quantities of money are going to be increasingly hard to come by."

Indeed, while Puerto Ricans now pay no federal income taxes, half the island's 3.7 million inhabitants receive Food Stamps -- a rate considerably higher than that of Mississippi, the poorest mainland state.

Puerto Rico has long had a high rate of out-of-wedlock births -- a problem which seems to worsen as Puerto Ricans move closer to the American mainstream. An astounding 59.4 percent of Puerto Rican children born on the U.S. mainland are born to unwed mothers, a rate twice the (dismayingly high) national average and much greater than any other Hispanic group in the U.S.

Unemployment on the island is over 13 percent, more than twice the national figure.


Then there is language -- a symbol of culture and probably the most volatile issue of all. According to the Census Bureau, only 25 percent of the island's population is fluent in English, and that percentage hasn't risen in years. Some Republicans hope to expand the use of English on the island, but history suggests this will be difficult. Indeed, Puerto Ricans have a history of pride in their language and of tough resistance to measures extending the use of English in their schools.

Passage of the plebiscite bill in Congress could very well launch Puerto Rico on an inexorable march toward becoming the 51st state. Why, then, is there so little caution, so little reflection by the Washington political establishment on the potential pitfalls of such union?

The independence movement -- while now able to garner only about 5 percent in the opinion polls -- has always had a substantial backing among Puerto Rico's intellectual and artistic elite.

The pro-independence forces have resorted to violence on several occasions, and Puerto Ricans continue to revere as nationalist heroes several martyr-figures whom most Americans would view simply as terrorists. The friction over language and culture that Puerto Rican statehood would surely generate might well inflame the independentista spirit -- with unforseeable consequences.

Perhaps Puerto Ricans might benefit -- materially at least -- from the increased access to federal transfer payments that statehood would bring.

But what would be the impact on the the U.S.? A relatively poor Caribbean island state, with a high illegitimacy rate, would almost certainly elect to Congress liberal Democrats, who would be committed to higher taxes and increased social spending. Such legislators could be expected to support the extension of bilingual education, and might well become a powerful institutional voice for making Spanish a quasi-official language of the U.S.


There are, we know, an array of arguments both for and against statehood (and the other options) that haven't been addressed here; we have stressed the reasons for hesitation and caution.

The mystery is why the Republican-controlled Congress is ready to take such a major and probably irrevocable step affecting the future of the U.S. with so little public debate and reflection. At week's end, Speaker Newt Gingrich's office had no thought to offer on the matter.

We believe that the looming vote on Puerto Rico's status is yet another sign of how the congressional GOP has lost its way. The current leadership seems more interested in trying to placate the liberal Washington establishment -- or hatching schemes it imagines are popular with minority voters -- than in protecting the interests of the voters who elected it. This is a feckless way to guide America's destiny.

Copyright ©1997, N.Y.P. Holdings Inc.

Last modified: July 17, 1997

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