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Puerto Rico will be heard Referendum: Choice between commonwealth status and statehood could force congressional action.


SINCE Congress would not hold a plebiscite of Puerto Rican voters on the island's status, Gov. Pedro Rossello is. The referendum Sunday will not be binding, but Congress will be unable to ignore it.

The vote will not close debate on whether Puerto Rico should retain its unique commonwealth status, achieve independence, associate with the United States on a new basis or gain statehood. If the vote is for statehood, as seems possible, it will open that debate on the mainland. And if Puerto Ricans choose statehood, they would deserve sympathetic consideration.

The United States took Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, denied it independence and in 1952 created the present relationship, largely designed by a Puerto Rican political leader. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. If they move to Baltimore, they vote and pay taxes as Baltimoreans do. In Puerto Rico, U.S. citizens pay no federal income taxes and cannot vote for president, but are subject to U.S. law and the military draft.

Puerto Ricans may complain that their average wealth is below that of the poorest U.S. state. But most consider themselves better off in self-government, cultural freedom and economic security than Hispanic-speaking people of independent Cuba or the Dominican Republic.

Hawaii and Alaska did not get statehood on first request, and neither would Puerto Rico. Sharp debate would begin in earnest on the implications for the U.S. Treasury and on conflict between the primacy of English in the United States and the Hispanic heritage of Puerto Rico.

The last referendum in 1993 went narrowly for continued commonwealth. Quebec nationalists in Canada and Scottish nationalists in the United Kingdom shock their countrymen by threatening to carry majorities for independence. Puerto Ricans may jolt the United States by providing a mandate for the 51st state. The issue would no longer be whether they are ready, but whether the rest of us are.

Pub date:12/11/98

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