Puerto Rican statehood -- not for the asking

While unprecedented attention is being focused on developments in Central America, Mexico, and most of South America, not many in Washington seem to be aware that there is serious trouble brewing in Puerto Rico.

One who is aware is Louisiana's Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, who said: ''Puerto Rico could become a dramatically incendiary issue that could virtually destroy our Caribbean policy, our image, and our credibility, and bring us untold political miseries. All the elements are there for that to happen.''

The basic element, according to Senator Johnston, is that a large and growing number of Puerto Ricans are being led to believe that ''a request for statehood is a guarantee of statehood.''

Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor, Carlos Romero Barcelo, when asked recently what he would do if Congress did not act, answered: ''The real answer to that is that I don't think that will ever happen, because it will mean that Congress would be negating democracy itself.''

As US citizens, Romero explained, Puerto Ricans have ''a constitutional, inherent right'' to statehood. Congress and the nation ''have a moral commitment to the people in Puerto Rico'' to approve it.

But it isn't just Romero. Mr. Johnston notes that Puerto Ricans ''can be made to feel that they have been misled, lied to, deceived, because every president since Eisenhower has said, 'Your status is up to you.' ''

Clearly, it isn't up to the Puerto Ricans. The decision whether to admit Puerto Rico would be made in Washington, not in San Juan. And, to say the least, it would not be an easy matter for Congress.

Puerto Rico would be, by far, the poorest state: Its per capita income is one-half that of Mississippi, one-third the national per capita income. Several federal studies indicate that major changes would be required to convert the island into a state-like economy. Puerto Rico is exempt from federal taxes.

Puerto Rico's industrialization, its once-famous Operation Bootstrap, was based precisely on the present unique relationship to the US. Thus there is not only the question of whether Puerto Rico could withstand the additional weight of federal taxation, but whether it could accelerate its economic growth so as to close the enormous gap with the other 50 states.

Island statehooders respond that Congress would approve a post-statehood 20 -year economic transition period, gradually phasing in federal taxation and phasing out several existing benefits, such as the federal rum tax ''rebate'' now received by the island treasury.

Governor Romero has also suggested that the US take over Puerto Rico's public debt, now about $8 billion.

Congress would have to deal with a sensitive cultural issue. Puerto Rico, according to island statehooders, would become the ''Hispanic state,'' retaining its own distinct cultural identity. In a book titled ''Statehood Is for the Poor ,'' Governor Romero wrote: ''As I have said so often, our language and our culture are not negotiable!''

However, in admitting into the union four territories with large non-English-speaking populations - Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona - Congress did require that English be declared the official language. Would Congress not require the same of Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico would have more representation in Congress than 27 states: no fewer than seven representatives and the two senators. Would the House reapportion itself or increase its size, something it has not done in 70 years?

Needless to say, there are important political implications in all this, especially in view of the fact that Puerto Ricans historically have voted straight party ticket. Thus presumably the entire congressional delegation would belong to the same party.

Finally, there is little in recent history to suggest that Congress would act speedily on statehood. Hawaii and Alaska waited a half century after being declared ''incorporated territories,'' which in fact meant a commitment to eventual statehood.

Yet President Reagan assured Puerto Ricans this year that ''Congress and the people of this country would welcome Puerto Rican statehood.'' President Carter, in a 1978 message read on the island, said that if Puerto Rico selected statehood, ''it will be yours.''

The danger is this: A Puerto Rican petition for statehood would require Congress to face and unravel a series of highly complex economic, political, and cultural issues without precedent in US history. So, to the degree that local and US political leaders convince the Puerto Ricans that statehood is there for the asking, they are leading the island and the US into stormy waters.

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