While I was growing up in Puerto Rico, where my family moved in 1956 from Los Angeles, the hotly debated political issue was statehood. Should the island which became part of the U.S. in 1898 after the Spanish-American War become America's 51st state, declare its independence or remain a U.S. Commonwealth—a status it attained in 1952?
Island residents' majority opinion, which I recall hearing expressed during my youth, was that the Commonwealth option provided Puerto Ricans with the best of all worlds.
Except for voting privileges in U.S. presidential elections, Puerto Ricans as automatic American citizens get the country's inherent benefits without having to pay federal income tax (although they do contribute to social security). They can travel to, work in and remain indefinitely in the U.S. without challenge.
But now, however, a fourth vote on Puerto Rican political status may be in the offing.
A Puerto Rico referendum bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on April 29 by a 223-169 vote. H. R. 2499, the Puerto Rican Democracy Act, calls for a so-called "non-binding" expression by Puerto Rican voters on their island's future political status.
The bill authorizes Puerto Rico to conduct a first vote asking its people whether they
(a) favor the Commonwealth status quo; or
(b) prefer the nebulous "different political status"
If a majority votes for change, a second round of voting would then ask whether Puerto Rico should become
(a) a state;
(b) a modified commonwealth (incomprehensibly defined as "sovereignty in association with the United States: Puerto Rico and the United States would form a political association between sovereign nations that will not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution;");
(c) become fully independent;
or (d) remain a Commonwealth.
Curiously, under H.R. 2499, Puerto Ricans living on the island and U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico—but not necessarily living there today—would be eligible to participate in the plebiscites.
Census data show (amazingly) that slightly more Puerto Ricans, about 4.2 million, live in the U.S. than on the island. And according to private surveys, 73 percent of stateside Puerto Ricans would likely vote for statehood, thereby potentially overriding the will of island residents.
H.R. 2499's final terms thwarted an effort by Puerto Rico's pro-statehood, leftist New Progressive Party to drop altogether the Commonwealth option from the final ballot and to limit voters' choices to either statehood or independence. The PNP, as it is called, controls both the governor's office and the legislature.
My guess: had the only ballot choices been between statehood and independence, the election would have resulted in a landslide vote for statehood.
Desperate Puerto Rican statehood proponents were willing to use strong-arm tactics to force their way into the Union to rid Puerto Rico of its heavy debt load. Puerto Rico's public debt has grown at a faster pace than the growth of its economy, reaching $46.7 billion in 2008.
In January 2009, Governor Luis Fortuño laid off 30,000 government workers in an effort to eliminate his government's $3.3 billion deficit, although this will increase the 12 percent unemployment rate. [Puerto Rico to layoff 30,000, New America Media, by Teo Ballvé, March 9, 2009]
Just what America needs—more bankrupt states with astronomically high unemployment rates!
In the back of Fortuño's mind must be the slight possibility that, as a state, Puerto Rico might qualify for a U.S Treasury bailout, which it would be unlikely to receive as a Commonwealth.
Some statehood detractors have high visibility in Congress.
In remarks from the House floor, Gutierrez said that he could support statehood if Puerto Rico could still field an Olympic team, keep Spanish as its main language and retain other aspects of its identity.
According to Gutierrez,
"Maybe these 4 million American citizens don't want to become a state because they love their language; because they love their culture; because they love their idiosyncrasies; because they love applauding their Olympic team…because so many Miss Universes come from Puerto Rico." [Puerto Rican Statehood? No thanks, says Gutierrez, by Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune, May 2, 2010]
The English language issue Gutierrez referenced is critical to the statehood debate.
An effort by U.S. Rep. Paul Broun R-Ga. (immigration grade: A+), to amend H.R. 2499 to stipulate that any newly formed state mandate English as its official language of government operations was defeated in the House Natural Resources Committee on a 13-to-24 vote, split along partisan lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
Eventually, however, the House adopted a meaningless amendment which stated that any official language requirements of the federal government will also apply to Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico as they do to the other 50 states.
As a press release from Pro English, the Washington, D.C.-based national non-profit, non-partisan organization noted that since English is not the official language of the United States, the amendment is merely a "smokescreen". ProEnglish added:
"This was a stunning setback for maintaining English as the common tongue that unites Americans—especially when polls reveal that 9 of 10 of Americans want English to be the official language of government operations and 30 states have adopted laws to that effect."
"Democrats and Republican supporters of statehood know that Puerto Ricans would never vote for statehood if they knew they would have to give up Spanish to be admitted to the Union. So they desperately are trying to sweep the language issue under the rug."
Added McAlpin: "No territory operating in a language other than English has ever been admitted as a state."
After H.B 2499 passed the House, a preliminary hearing at the Senate Committee for Natural Resources and Energy was held to gather testimony.
Among those present were the following Puerto Rican contingent: Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi; President of the Popular Democratic Party, Héctor Ferrer; President of the Independence Party, Rubén Berríos and Governor Fortuño
One anonymous attendee confided in me that the Senate questioning of the Puerto Ricans was "hostile". No further proceedings have been scheduled.
The obvious question: why House Republicans would vote in favor of Puerto Rican statehood when the net result will inevitably be more Democrats in Congress?
Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, fresh from his betrayal of patriotic immigration reformers during the Bush amnesty wars, is one of Puerto Rican statehood's biggest champions. His rationale:
"As a conservative who believes in the power of self-determination and of individual liberty, I believe the 4 million American citizens in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico should be able to voice their opinions about Puerto Rico's relationship to the United States, although the ultimate determination of that fate rests with this Congress, and I am pleased to stand in a long line of Republicans who have taken that view. Every Republican President for the last 50 years has been committed to self-determination and democracy for the American citizens in Puerto Rico." (See Pence's speech here)
I have a different take on Pence and other like-minded Republican panderers. They think that being pro-Puerto Rican statehood, in defiance of all the evidence that neither Puerto Ricans nor Americans favor it, is a cheap opportunity to demonstrate their pro-Hispanic disposition.
But let me boil down its consequences for you. Obama admits to being "open" to Puerto Rican statehood. He's appointed La Raza operative Cecilia Muñoz, currently known as the White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, as co-chair of the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status.
The goal of Puerto Rican statehood is nothing as lofty like "self determination" or "democracy". Instead, it is to leveraging Congress with as many Democrats as possible, to keep the Obama agenda grinding along and crushing whatever opposition the Republicans may mount along the way.
What better reasons could there be to oppose Puerto Rican statehood?
Why not let all Americans vote on this subversive proposal?
We are the ones who will pay the price.
Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.