Exploiting the status of Puerto Rico

It will hardly do for the United States to tell the United Nations to mind its business rather than seeking to exploit the Puerto Rico status issue. The UN Decolonization Committee's vote, over US objections, to have the General Assembly debate the island commonwealth status next year, has again made US-Puerto Rican ties an international issue. Cuba and Syria forced the vote. But to what end?

Puerto Ricans themselves have long recognized that propaganda gambits such as that which Cuba and Syria are embarked on will provide them little concrete social or economic benefits. That is why the two big American-style parties, the governing New Progressives and the challenging Popular Democrats, continue to draw more than 90 percent of islanders' votes.

Still, there are pockets of discontent fed in large measure by the island's sad economic condition. This provides enemies like Syria and Cuba with ammunition for launching verbal attacks against the US. For example, the island's unemployment ranges between 30 and 40 percent, the government owes mainland banks $7 billion, and 55 percent of Puerto Ricans collect food stamps. This economic disequilibrium must be balanced against the large amounts of assistance Congress provides and the unlimited access that Puerto Ricans have to the mainland as American citizens.

Even so, people like Ruben Berrios, head of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, call the present economic system colonialist. Others who are not necessarily pro-independence criticize development schemes they feel do not provide enough ''trickle down'' benefits to aid the poor. A major weakness with development programs that have been introduced in the wake of Operation Bootstrap is that they have required highly skilled workers. Consequently, the benefits that Operation Bootstrap offered the masses of poor during the late Luis Munoz Marin's three-term governorship have long disappeared. Also, overly generous taxing incentives for island-based US corporations means that little of the profits are retained for Puerto Rico.

The ultimate deadlock between dominant commonwealth and statehood forces must be resolved by islanders themselves. At the same time, though, the US should give greater attention to reducing opportunities for countries like Cuba and Syria to exploit Puerto Rico's status by working more closely with islanders to improve the area's economic foundation.

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