Puerto Rico statehood bill 

House Democrats are pushing a bill to authorize a referendum on statehood in Puerto Rico. The Washington Times has a good editorial opposing the bill. They point out that among other features the bill would allow people of Puerto Rican origin who now live outside Puerto Rico to vote in the referendum, that the questions on the ballot would be framed in a way to favor statehood and that Puerto Rico would be the first state with an overwhelming majority whose first language is not English. All good arguments.

Obviously House Democrats are motivated at least in part by crass political calculation: they figure that a state of Puerto Rico would elect two Democratic senators and five or six Democratic House members. That may not be quite true: the current Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, is a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive party and identified as a Republican when he served as Resident Commissioner, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative, in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2005 to 2009.

I have been following Puerto Rico issues for many years, and I think the Times misses one important point against this bill. And that is that statehood has traditionally been granted only to territories whose residents show, in referendum or otherwise, overwhelming support for statehood. There is no such support in Puerto Rico. Status—whether Puerto Rico should become a state, should become independent or should retain in current terms or somewhat modified terms the current status which in English is called commonwealth but in Spanish the more descriptive estado liberado asociado—has been the single most important issue in Puerto Rican politics since the 1940s. The electorate is closely split (as the figures cited by the Times show) between statehood and commonwealth and between the pro-statehood New Progressive party and the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic party. Only a small percentage of voters, most of them university students it seems, support independence. I think it would be very unwise to grant statehood to a territory where there is not a strong consensus for statehood, as there was in the Alaska and Hawaii territories in the 1950s.

 

It’s true that if Congress passes this referendum bill, it is not obliged to grant statehood if Puerto Ricans approve it by a narrow margin. But passing the bill would be taken in Puerto Rico as an implied promise that Congress will grant statehood if it comes out ahead in a referendum. Congress shouldn’t make promises, or even implied promises, it won’t keep, and especially promises to our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It certainly shouldn’t do so just to produce a few more votes for one party in the U.S. Senate, House and Electoral College.

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Michael Barone

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