What's Good for US Latinos May Not Be Best for Puerto Ricans

For U.S. Latinos, it would be the biggest political boost in history. Imagine suddenly gaining two Hispanic U.S. senators and six additional Latino members of the House of Representatives. Imagine 4 million additional Latinos suddenly eligible to vote for president. The gains would be much bigger than those that Latinos are likely to receive from the new census tabulations or from any gigantic voter registration campaign, even bigger than the certain Latino voter backlash that has been provoked by lawmakers in Arizona.

For U.S. Latino empowerment, nothing could match the entry of Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the union.

Yet if and when that happens, it should be because we the American people, especially our Congress, respected the will of the Puerto Rican people. It should be because they were able to choose statehood over independence and their current commonwealth status in a free and truly democratic process.

When they vote in a new plebiscite to determine the political future of their precious island, Puerto Ricans should know that our Congress is bound to respect their decision and committed to act upon it.

Anything else would be a farce, another nonbinding beauty contest, a repeat of the plebiscites of 1967, 1993 and 1998 and another huge waste of time, money and emotions. That's what has happened in the past and what likely would happen again under the latest proposed plebiscite, which is already approved by the House and bound for Senate hearings.

Those who support this plebiscite, starting with pro-statehood Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, argue that unlike the others, which were conducted by the government of Puerto Rico, at least this one would be "authorized" by Congress. Of course, that means absolutely nada. It still would be nonbinding. Once the Puerto Rican people made their choice, Congress still could ignore them - just as it ignores most controversial matters.

If Puerto Ricans were to choose statehood, for example, many linguistically impaired, ethnically challenged and xenophobically affected Republicans would have serious reservations. They would raise all kinds of racist objections to try to prevent the island from becoming the 51st state. They would insist, as they have in the past, that Puerto Ricans should speak only English and renounce the Spanish language and culture.

And before Puerto Ricans venture into statehood, many would like some guarantees that such racist restrictions would not be imposed on them.

Unfortunately, the bill passed by the House April 29 - by a bipartisan vote of 223-169 - is so flawed that even the three Puerto Rican-Americans in Congress couldn't agree on it. Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., voted for it. But Reps. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., and Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., voted against it.

Gutierrez argued that the legislation had been rushed through the House without clearly defining the options that would be offered to Puerto Rican voters, and Velazquez argued that it was skewed to favor the statehood option. Serrano, while recognizing some flaws, supported it because, he said, at least it began a process that could lead to the decolonization of the island.

Some background: Under the commonwealth status, approved by Congress in 1952 as a transitional arrangement, Puerto Ricans on the island are American citizens who are subject to federal law but don't enjoy all the rights of citizenship.

They serve in the U.S. military, often with remarkable courage, but cannot vote in presidential elections. They pay no federal income taxes, but their voice in Congress is limited to a single nonvoting delegate to the House.

A task force established by President Bill Clinton and revived by President George W. Bush five years ago recommended that unlike previous plebiscites, a new one should be conducted in two parts. First, Puerto Ricans would have to decide on whether they want to remain under the commonwealth relationship with the United States. If they voted for change, a second plebiscite would give them only two options, statehood or independence.

It seemed like a sound idea, especially because it nudged the Puerto Rican people to make a tough decision they have been avoiding, a decision with only two choices instead of three. Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, now 58 years old, never was meant to be permanent. Most Puerto Ricans acknowledge that sooner or later, they will have to move on to another arrangement. Yet when they had a choice of being a commonwealth, a state or independent in the three previous plebiscites, they clung to the commonwealth they claim they must let go.

The deadlock could be broken, some thought, with the two-plebiscite process suggested by the Bush panel. Yet others argued that because independence always ranks a low third among the three options, the two-plebiscite process would favor statehood. And their argument was so strong that the idea was stalled during the Bush years. When it was resuscitated again this year, as the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010, it still called for two rounds of voting, but it had three options in the second round - statehood, independence or free association, a poorly defined third option that involved sovereignty while maintaining some sort of association with the United States. In other words, they had managed to preserve the commonwealth option without calling it commonwealth.

But that wasn't enough. Because this new third option was clearly a farce and no one could explain what it would entail, amazingly, commonwealth was reintroduced as a fourth option! It was an amendment introduced by Republicans in a clear attempt to derail any movement toward statehood in Puerto Rico, and now we have a bill that is full of contradictions.

The amendment completely nullifies the intent of the two-round voting process. Now Puerto Ricans can reject commonwealth in the first round and still end up supporting it in the second. If commonwealth is still an option in the second round, why bother having a first round?

Every few years, the Puerto Rican people are taken on this emotional roller-coaster ride created by nonbinding plebiscites with more than two options. And like all riders of roller coasters, they always end up exactly where they started, clinging to commonwealth.

Unless the Senate corrects the many flaws in the House bill, Puerto Ricans are already in line for another emotional ride to define who they are as a people. And the rest of us U.S. Latinos are going to have to wait until they are given a fair chance to define their destiny.

Puerto Rican statehood could be great for U.S. Latinos, but only if Puerto Ricans really want it, Congress learns to respect their right to self-determination and they all agree to demolish the multiple-choice plebiscite roller coaster.

Author: Miguel Perez
Source: Creators Syndicate

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