For 92 years, Puerto Rico has flown the U.S. flag. Since 1952, when Puerto Ricans voted in favor of commonwealth status decreed by Congress, the people of the island nation have been governed by that system. But questions of possible statehood or independence keep arising.
Commonwealth status, a semi-autonomous condition that has some features of independence and some of statehood, gives Puerto Ricans citizenship and some tax breaks, but also withholds the full rights of statehood.It has always been the most popular option, despite sporadic efforts in behalf of statehood or independence, the latter a sometimes violent minority movement.
But the issue of statehood or some other status surfaced as a surprise issue during a political fight in 1988. In his race for re-election, Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon was accused of being a secret "independence sympathizer" and nearly lost what had been expected to be an easy victory.
Angered by what he said were false reports, Colon afterwards called for an islandwide plebiscite to settle Puerto Rico's status "once and for all." President Bush has agreed with the idea and measures are being pushed in Congress to hold such a vote. However, a Senate committee last week defeated proposed plebiscite legislation and the Senate appears unwilling to accept similar measures in the House.
The Senate action could mean the plebiscite is dead for now, although some observers say the idea might be revived in Congress.
One plebiscite was held previously in 1967 when commonwealth status won in a landslide with 60.4 percent of the vote. Clearly, that didn't settle the issue for "once and all."
What is surprising in the latest scenario is the sudden popularity that the idea of statehood has shown. Backers of statehood are promoting it vigorously as a boon to the islands's many poor.
Under statehood, they say welfare payments and other social services would increase significantly - by as much as $3.2 billion a year by some estimates. In addition, the island would immediately gain political clout, two senators and six or seven members of the House.
By U.S. standards, Puerto Rico is poor. Unemployment is high and the average wage is $5,673 per capita, less than half of the average wage in Mississippi, the poorest state. Yet Puerto Rico is a paradox. It is better off than its Caribbean neighbors and is looked at with envy by them.
And if statehood were to come, there would be serious negatives. Some 600 companies have located on the island because they don't have to pay federal income taxes. Statehood would remove that incentive and the feeling on Wall Street is that most would pack up and move elsewhere.
Puerto Rico, where only one in five people speak more than a few words of English, is hardly likely to become a booming industrial or tourist mecca, especially if it loses all that existing industry. It could become a disaster area and a permanent drain on the U.S. Treasury.
Puerto Ricans need to be aware of the consequences as well as the benefits of statehood.
As for the U.S. Congress, it should give a cold shoulder to efforts by some to link two issues - a plebiscite on statehood for Puerto Rico and statehood for Washington, D.C. They are separate and unrelated questions that have little in common. They should be treated as such.