Puerto Rico's Stalemate

The pro-statehood Puerto Rican government thought last Sunday's referendum would prove islanders' desire to become the 51st state. But despite Gov. Pedro Rossell's assertions to the contrary, it only further muddied the waters.

Puerto Ricans enjoy an unusual commonwealth, status - although the Spanish term translates as "free associated state," which gives quite a different impression. Islanders are American citizens with the right to move to the mainland. But while on the island, they can't vote for president, pay no federal income taxes, and send only one nonvoting delegate to Congress.

The referendum, the third on the island's status, gave voters five choices: statehood, independence, "free association" (a looser tie than currently exists), the current commonwealth status, or "none of the above." Unfortunately, on this ballot, as before, the political parties could not agree on the definition of commonwealth. The governor's New Progressive Party defined it on the ballot as "colonial" status. That caused the Popular Democrats, who push an idealized version of "commonwealth" to which Washington would never agree, to urge a vote for "none of the above."

As a result, 47 percent voted for statehood, while 50 percent voted for "none of the above." Many of the latter said they were voting for the status quo. The only clear result was the reaffirmation that, despite the protestations of a few vocal militants, almost no Puerto Ricans (2.5 percent) support independence.

That's not going to persuade Congress to start the statehood clock, however much the San Juan government wants it. Someday the people of Puerto Rico may have to bite the bullet and make up their minds for statehood or independence. Until a clearer consensus develops, however, Congress would be well advised to wait.

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