Every Puerto Rican is, in one way or another, obsessed with our identity. Who are we, what are we? What does it mean to be a Puerto Rican?
A new deal for Puerto Rico is on table
Supporters of statehood for Puerto Rico believe they are nearing a big victory in the U.S. House of Representatives.
BY PABLO BACHELET
WASHINGTON -- For the first time in nearly a decade, the U.S. House seems likely to pass a bill that would put Puerto Rico on a path to statehood or independence.
The latest of many efforts to definitively settle the four million islanders' ambiguous relationship with the United States comes as Congress struggles with an immigration overhaul to deal with 12 million illegal migrants, most of them Hispanics.
Sponsored by Reps. José Serrano, D-N.Y., and Luis Fortuño, R-Puerto Rico, The Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007 faces tough scrutiny in the Senate. But its backers have the support of President Bush and are optimistic that they can prevail, possibly securing a House floor vote as soon as next month.
''There's a good chance,'' said Fortuño, a statehood supporter and nonvoting member of Congress who is preparing a run at the governorship of Puerto Rico next year. ``I've been talking to the leadership of both sides, and I truly believe that it is very doable.''
The initiative, based on a White House task-force report on Puerto Rico's status issued in late 2005, establishes a two-stage plebiscite process. Islanders would first choose between maintaining their current status -- officially a U.S. territory but broadly known as a commonwealth -- or opting for a different and permanent arrangement.
If they choose the current status, Puerto Ricans would be asked to repeat the process every eight years until a definitive result is reached. If they want a permanent deal -- the most likely outcome, according to observers -- then islanders would vote again between statehood and some form of independence, which could be full sovereignty or a middle-of-the-road option known as ``free association.''
Congress, which has the power to decide Puerto Rico's status, has never mandated a plebiscite for the island.
Opponents of the Serrano-Fortuño bill say it is constructed to eliminate from the ballot one major option -- an enhancement of the current commonwealth arrangement.
''This is the first time I have seen a process in which the runoff election would be held between the second and third place,'' said Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, governor of Puerto Rico and a proponent of enhanced commonwealth.
But the bill's supporters say this is the only acceptable formula to settle a question that dates back to 1898, when U.S. troops seized the island from Spain. Its people have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Residents do not vote in U.S. presidential elections and have one nonvoting member in the House, although those living on the mainland can vote in federal elections.
This limbo has its upsides. Island residents do not pay federal taxes and get federal transfers to the tune of $7 billion a year for programs like No Child Left Behind. Puerto Rico is home to a thriving drug manufacturing industry, and it has more trade with the U.S. than Brazil or Italy.
But Puerto Rico is poor by U.S. standards, with two of every five citizens falling below the federal poverty line. If it became a state, it would rank 25th in population and field two senators and seven House members.
Jeffrey Farrow, a former co-chair of an interagency task force on Puerto Rico in the Clinton administration, says rich Puerto Ricans would lose because they would pay federal taxes while most poor islanders would get more money from Washington.
But many islanders worry that becoming a U.S. state would compromise their identity.
''Puerto Rico is a Latin American nation,'' said Eduardo Bhatia, the governor's representative in Washington. ``There's no question about it.''
Pulled and pushed by those considerations, Puerto Ricans have long struggled to make up their minds about their island's status.
Since 1967, they have held four nonbinding status plebiscites. An undefined form of commonwealth prevailed each time by a tiny margin over statehood. Independence came in a distant third.
The deadlock has carried over into Congress, which has seen 66 House and 27 Senate bills or resolutions, often dueling proposals from each side of the issue.
Acevedo-Vilá prefers to have islanders elect a constitutional assembly that in turn would present to Congress a status proposal. His pitch: a permanent, ''enhanced commonwealth'' status that would allow Puerto Ricans to enter into trade and tax agreements with third countries. Islanders also would be allowed to waive federal laws they did not like.
Bhatia says that is the necessary middle road between statehooders and backers of independence. ''It keeps the island in a very stable democracy,'' he said.
Still, Bhatia recognizes that statehood supporters have gained the advantage in the U.S. Congress. ''They have learned the Washington ways,'' he said.
One problem for backers of enhanced commonwealth is that few believe it would pass either political or constitutional muster. Rep. Serrano has called it a ``letter to Santa Claus.''
`BEST OF ALL WORLDS'
''It's the best of all worlds,'' allowing the island to conduct an independent foreign policy and veto U.S. laws, said Dick Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general who has written a book on Puerto Rico's status. ``It's what any state would wish to have. . . . It's totally unrealistic.''
The Serrano-Fortuño bill faces stiffer opposition in the Senate, where powerful lawmakers such as Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott and Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy oppose it.
But the initiative has influential supporters. A bill similar to Serrano-Fortuño, introduced last year by Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez and Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar, had 15 sponsors.
''I remain committed to ensuring the people of Puerto Rico have an opportunity to choose their future,'' Martínez said. ``The recent House action is definitely positive momentum.''
Then there's the question of how keen lawmakers are to give island residents the right to vote in federal elections at a time when Latino assimilation is an undercurrent in the ongoing debate over an immigration-policy overhaul.
As Acevedo-Vilá put it during a recent House hearing: ``Are we planning to entitle the 51st state to keep forever the Spanish language as its principal language in public schools, in the local courts and in everyday business?''