Both Hawaii and Alaska waited many years before they were finally admitted to the union, as states, back in 1959. Now a majority of the people of Puerto Rico have made it clear that they think it is their turn.
Statehood may well be appropriate, but the people of Puerto Rico and the United States should fully understand the likely consequences of such a change.
Proponents of statehood appear to have an ally in President Obama, who said last month that he is “firmly committed to the principle that the question of political status is a matter of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico.”
Last week the president added that he had set aside $2.5 million to facilitate the statehood process. The money would be spent to set up a plebiscite that might appear to settle the issue once and for all.
Becoming the 51st state won’t necessarily be easy, no matter how overwhelming the pro-statehood sentiment of the Puerto Rican people may be. Under Article 4 of the United States Constitution, they also need the approval of both houses of Congress (and the signature of the president).
Keep this in mind: Puerto Rican statehood would almost surely help the Democratic Party. President Barack Obama captured 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last year, and many of these voters are Puerto Ricans who have established their homes in Central Florida. The Republican majority in the House will not be thrilled at the idea of helping the opposition.
But ultimately the decision should be based on what is best for Puerto Rico
Reagan said: “We recognize the right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination. If they choose statehood, we will work together to devise a union of promise and opportunity in our Federal union of sovereign States.”
Last November, in a non-binding referendum, Puerto Ricans voted in favor of casting aside their present commonwealth status. In a second question on the same ballot, 61 percent expressed support for statehood while 33 percent said they favored some sort of new agreement with the United States. A meager 5 percent said they wanted independence.
Back in 1998, when Puerto Ricans were given the opportunity to vote on statehood, a majority opposed it. So those in favor would appear to have made significant strides in the past 15 years.
Even so, the topic is seldom addressed here on the mainland. But the president’s allocation of the $2.5 million might inspire greater attention to the issue.
The idea of statehood has long enlivened politics in Puerto Rico. Four times since 1967 voters chose to retain the commonwealth status, although the margin had steadily decreased. Then came the November referendum, which changed the dynamics of the debate.
While most Puerto Ricans pay no federal income tax, they do contribute to Social Security and are eligible to receive federal welfare benefits. In addition, many of them have served in the American armed forces.
One issue that will surely arise if the statehood issue ever reaches Congress: While English is one of the two “official” languages, most Puerto Ricans speak Spanish, and many of those who do speak English don’t do it very well, according to recent studies.
Also, Puerto Rico’s debt has recently soared to $67 billion, and although its economy grew by 1.1 percent last year, that modest growth came after six consecutive years of decline.
Pro-statehood Puerto Ricans may find encouragement in the fact that in 1959 both Hawaii and Alaska finally achieved that prized status after long years of debate, although the issues certainly aren’t identical.
But they can also find discouraging evidence. Residents of Washington, D.C., voted in 1982 to establish a new state to be called New Columbia, but the proposal died on Capitol Hill. Thus, to this day, the capital’s residents have no voting representative in Congress.
And most of them speak English.