Taking Puerto Rico Out of Limbo

Should Puerto Rico become the 51st state, remain a United States commonwealth, or become an independent nation?

That's the question put to yet another White House panel to study. Last week, President Bush named 16 new members to a task force first established by President Clinton in 2000 to explore the issue.

After 105 years of discussions over the future of the Caribbean island, it's time for a clear solution for Puerto Rico, which has long been in limbo. Although Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917, they enjoy many of its privileges but not all its responsibilities. Congress has never given Puerto Rico the chance to determine its own future.

As members of a US commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are subject to federal laws, can be drafted, but have only a nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives. And they cannot vote for president.

Statehood would mean they would have full US citizenship and full representation in Congress, and could vote for president. They also would be required to pay federal income tax. And that is at the heart of many Puerto Ricans' reluctance about statehood.

Recent polls among Puerto Rico's 3.9 million people (another 3.4 million live in the US) consistently show an even split between those who favor statehood and those who prefer the status quo. In nonbinding plebiscites in 1993 and 1998, voters chose to remain a commonwealth, although the vote was close. Independence remains the favorite option of only a few.

The latest task force, which holds its first meeting in January, should help pave a clear pathway for Congress to set up a neutral process so that Puerto Ricans can decide for themselves, once and for all, whether they're willing to become a state.

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