IN recent years, Americans have witnessed freedom's sweep across Eastern Europe, taking heart in the ability of former satellite nations to determine their own futures. While this exhilarating expression of democracy occurred abroad, more than 3.6 million Americans have been denied the basic right of political self-determination. They are the people of Puerto Rico.
Since attaining citizenship in 1917, Puerto Ricans have enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the United States, yet the island government continues to languish under a nebulous status, first as a territory administered by Washington and, since 1952, as a self-governing territory operating under a constitution approved by the US Congress. However, with the election of a new US president, Congress, and a new Puerto Rican governor, the US is now presented with a historic opportunity to solidify the island's
relationship with the US by making it a state.
An executive order issued in November by former President Bush was an important step toward finalizing that relationship. Mr. Bush directed executive branch departments and agencies to treat Puerto Rico as a state in all administrative actions. While this action officially put into writing the policy that has largely been practiced by federal agencies for years, it also sent an important message to those working to determine Puerto Rico's ultimate relationship to the US.
The memo directs that as long as the island is a US territory, the federal government should recognize and honor the will of the Puerto Rican people to change their relationship with the US. Puerto Ricans' sentiments on this issue are to be determined periodically through referenda sponsored by either the Puerto Rican legislature or the US government.
Bush's written support of the island's right to self-determination is important to the future of Puerto Rico and its people in the quest toward statehood and full recognition of our rights as US citizens.
While the island is a territory under the sovereignty of the US, Puerto Ricans do not enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of US citizens. Although Puerto Ricans have fought in every American conflict since World War I, we are not fairly represented in the federal government, cannot vote for the president, and essentially do not have the power to control our political future.
Besides offering equality to the island's residents, Puerto Rican statehood makes good economic sense for the US; the federal Treasury will be able to collect more than $5 billion a year in taxes from individuals and businesses on the island. Statehood will also enable Puerto Rico to establish a stable economy that does not rely primarily on tax breaks to major corporations.
Since 1989, five bills have been introduced in Congress to authorize a referendum on the island that would determine whether Puerto Rico becomes a state, continues as a commonwealth, or achieves independence. However, none of these bills have reached the Oval Office. Based on this history, Bush's memo constituted an important message: The executive branch will honor the wishes of Puerto Ricans on this matter.
This executive statement is an important step as the commonwealth prepares for a status referendum in 1993. Newly-elected Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello is currently preparing to schedule a status referendum within the next year, as promised during his recent campaign. However, without the US government's commitment to act on the decision of the Puerto Rican people, this referendum would be meaningless.
Tens of thousands demonstrated in San Juan last week against a bill that would make English one of the country's official languages. Governor Rossello supports the measure, which would overturn a 1991 law making Spanish the island's only official language. That law was backed by former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, who wanted Puerto Rico to remain a commonwealth, although with greater autonomy.
President Clinton has a key role to play in Puerto Rico's future. By allowing the Bush memo to stand as an executive order, the president will allow the island's people to decide their future for themselves, freely and democratically. Puerto Ricans deserve nothing less than to enjoy the full rights and privileges of US citizenship.