Free choice for Puerto Rico

The Panama Canal treaties were supposed to erase a Latin American image of the United States as a lingering colonial power, a distinction most people in the US didn't know they had. With the US's bipartisan success in resolving the Panama situation, the focus has turned to Puerto Rico as a test of US noncolonialist intentions. The need for similar bipartisan vigor in resolving Puerto Rico's status is dramatized by the reported uncertainty in what should be an open-and-shut case: today's scheduled UN committee vote on whether to put Puerto Rico back on the list of "non-self-governing territories."

Puerto Rico has been off that list for almost three decades, since well before Alaska and Hawaii were removed. It would be ludicrous to restore it, considering, for example, the Soviet fiefdoms that remain off the list. If the committee were to do so, and the General Assembly were to go along, the US would have to resume submitting yearly reports on Puerto Rico, the way Britain does on Gibraltar and used to have to do on Southern Rhodesia. Moscow has managed to avoid such responsibilities, partly by making colonies part of its internal empire.

Whatever turn the UN takes, the problem of Puerto Rico requires increased attention by the United States if it is not to become an Achilles' heel.

The Republican Party appeared to recognize the urgency when its 1980 platform called for legislation permitting Puerto Ricans to choose statehood "at the earliest possible date" after the presidential election.

Statehood, of course, is only one of the options, including independence and reaffirmed commonwealth status, which should be open to choice by the Puerto Ricans themselves. Genuine freedom to choose means economic prospects that do not inhibit a choice for political independence because of endless economic dependence on the US.

So far the Reagan administration has appeared to be particularly hard on Puerto Rico in its budget-cutting process. But the GOP platform offers the kind of supporting attitude for a transition toward statehood that ought to be assured to Puerto Ricans whatever their decision in an eventual plebiscite.

For example, the platform favors enabling Puerto Rico to stand economically on an equal footing with the rest of the states. It would only gradually have to assume the taxation responsibilities it does not now have. As for noneconomic matters, the GOP recognizes the Puerto Ricans' rights within a multicultural society to retain their Spanish language and traditions.

The same spirit of support, cooperation, and noninterference ought to have bipartisan backing in the United States if Puerto Rico should choose independence -- or commonwealth status, which is the choice it made in the last plebiscite. Then the present cries of US dominance to the point of providing no choice could be countered. In imagery as well as fact the spectacle of the US as a colonial power could be laid to rest.

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