Puerto Rico chooses

If you blinked, you missed yesterday's events commemorating the centenary of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. This war brought Spain's empire to a grinding halt, and jump-started the United States' own. Spain sold the Philippines as a $20 million colonial starter kit, and threw in Puerto Rico and Guam free of charge.

The US declined statehood for its "possessions," making them colonies. Colonies? In America? Sen. Albert J. Beveridge explained at the time: "There are people in the world who do not understand any form of government ... [and] must be governed."

A century later, the "Commonwealth of Puerto Rico" is one of five US colonies. Its 3.9 million US citizens are still denied federal representation. On Sunday, Puerto Rico will hold its third plebiscite to extricate itself from its colonial bind. The ballot choices: statehood, commonwealth, free association, independence, and "none of the above."

"None of the above?" Was Senator Beveridge right? Do these people not understand government? Must they be "governed?"

Puerto Ricans do understand some things about democracy that their fellow Americans should notice. Consider voter turnout. On the mainland, November's election turnout was 37 percent. Puerto Rico's turnout is consistently over 80 percent.

Consider also the "issues." This year, mainland politicians searched for an "issue" but came up dry. Meanwhile Puerto Ricans sought to get Congress focused on questions of sovereignty, citizenship, and federalism. Sound like the Founding Fathers? This is the stuff of Puerto Rican politics, because Puerto Rico is still struggling to establish itself in the union.

On occasion, mainland Americans wonder about Puerto Rico: Why should they vote if they don't pay taxes? They do pay taxes to their own government, which is effectively a federal agency. Or more often, mainlanders wonder: Didn't Puerto Ricans choose to be a commonwealth? Wrong. In 1993's nonbinding plebiscite, 49 percent chose "enhanced" commonwealth, 46 percent chose statehood, and 3 percent chose independence. In other words, 98 percent voted against their current status - a simple commonwealth.

"Enhanced" commonwealth would in effect create a nation within a nation that would have some of the sovereignty of an independent country and the power to nullify federal laws, but also a permanent association with the US and guaranteed US citizenship. Sounds good, but it's unconstitutional. Moreover, it still wouldn't get Puerto Ricans the vote: States, not citizens, have a constitutional right to federal representation.

Supporters of "enhanced" commonwealth want their US citizenship, but don't want statehood because they think it would destroy Puerto Rican culture. Meanwhile supporters of statehood don't think it would destroy our culture. We trust that the US really believes in the principles for which it stands.

Does it?

Consider this warning, by English Language Advocates founder Gerda Bikales: "America will not accept into its fold a new political entity with all the characteristics of a foreign nation." Guess what, Gerda. You already did. Now how about some representation?

Bigoted statements fuel opposition to statehood. If Americans expressed their willingness to welcome Puerto Rico into the union, perhaps that 49 percent wouldn't be so afraid.

All of this sheds light on "none of the above." To mainland Americans, this may seem like a joke. But some island politicians advocate that option to protest the exclusion of "enhanced" commonwealth from the ballot. Puerto Ricans take political choices seriously. Other Americans should take note.

When General Nelson A. Miles landed on the shores of Puerto Rico in 1898, he proclaimed the US had brought "the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our Government." Ironically, these didn't include representation in that government. Now, many Americans forget liberal government comes with responsible citizenship. Luckily, they have Puerto Rico at their shores.

Senator Beveridge notwithstanding, it is not Puerto Ricans who have failed to understand democratic government.

* Christina Duffy Burnett, a Puerto Rican, is co-editor of a forthcoming collection of essays, "Foreign in a Domestic Sense: Puerto Rico, American Expansion and the Constitution" (Duke University Press).

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