Puerto Rico's voters and a free-choice future

Puerto Ricans have enough democratic energy to turn out in record numbers for the nomination of candidates they nevertheless do not have the right to vote for in November's presidential election. The recent Republican and Democratic primaries dramatized the in-between political situation of Puerto Rico and the concern for changing it, or perhaps decisively reaffirming it at least for the time being.

All responsible sides say the outcome should be decided by the Puerto Ricans themselves -- whether it is independence, statehood, or continued United States commonwealth status. Another alternative is maintaining the commonwealth status with modifications giving Puerto Ricans more of the rights and responsibilities of American citizens. The problem is to ensure them a genuinely free choice in the matter, something that involves both economic and political considerations.

The need to make progress toward an acceptable decision is indicated not only by recurring Puerto Rican extremist attacks, such as the recent ones in Bush and Carter campaign offices, but by a broadening United Nations attention to the matter. Cuba had been the UN's one-man band on the subject, disdained even by most Puerto Rican political groups. The US argued it was none of the UN's business, since Puerto Rico was not a colony but a commonwealth with the right to self-determination, including the decision of becoming independent. But in the last couple of years Puerto Ricans of varied views have joined in at the UN.

Particularly striking was Governor Carlos Romero Barcelo's 1978 testimony before the UN's Committee on Decolonization:

"Should the day come when the people of Puerto Rico were to find themselves oppressed by the United States, it would not be necessary for a totalitarian adversary of the United States to bring the matter to the attention of his committee; I can assure you that the freedom-loving people of Puerto Rico would virtually lay siege to this building in their clamor for redress of grievances. . . . Yet I remain fully confident that no such action will ever be necessary. Because, for all its occasional faults, the Government of the United States has by and large conducted itself with grace and with fairness in its relationship with the American citizens of Puerto Rico."

It is because most Puerto Ricans share the governor's view, we believe, that so few have heeded the call for independence by Cuba or by their own nationalists. Yet it has been argued that abject economic dependence on the United States may inhibit what might otherwise be a free choice for independence. Better belonging to a friendly giant, in other words, than being on your own without the US rights and resources guaranteed now. By this reasoning, the US would assure an independent Puerto Rico of sufficient aid and cooperation to make independence no less viable a choice on economic grounds than statehood or commonwealth status. Then Puerto Ricans could be seen by the world as voting according to their consciences rather than their jobs, profits, or welfare payments. By all appearances the majority would still favor a United States connection.

The time for choice could be next year, when a plebiscite on Puerto Rico's status seems likely. During the primaries, pro-statehood actions supported Bush , who won all the Republican delegates, and Carter, who edged out Kennedy among the Democrats. Kennedy received the pro-commonwealth support. One of President Ford's last acts was to announce support for Puerto Rican statehood. In a 1967 referendum Puerto Ricans had overwhelmingly preferred commonwealth status. Have their sentiments genuinely changed? The watchword for Washington should remain President Carter's statement: "We know that we can best honor our friendship, and our democratic principles, by respecting your free choice about your own future."

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