If Puerto Rico Seeks Statehood, U.S. Faces Tough Choices

Article excerpt

The way Carlos Romero Barcelo sees it, this tiny, crowded U.S. commonwealth is like a gangly youth - all knees and elbows - afraid to cross the dance floor and invite his beloved to swing.

She might say no.

For 95 years, the object of Puerto Rico's affection - and a good part of its disdain - has been the United States of America: the engine of its progress, guardian of its shores and source of its paralyzing identity crisis.

Yet today, Puerto Rico's 3.6 million residents are closer than ever to popping the question. As campaigns heat up for a Nov. 14 island plebiscite, more and more Puerto Ricans are poised to ask Congress to embrace their island as the 51st state.

For the first time since the United States swallowed Puerto Rico as war booty in 1898, the United States might find itself forced to respond.

It could get ugly.

Puerto Rico is an impoverished suitor; its per-capita income is half that of the poorest state, Mississippi, and at least 40 percent of its residents receive food stamps. Despite claims of bilingualism, most of its people speak only Spanish and resent efforts to promote English.

The state of Puerto Rico - economically dependent, culturally and linguistically distinct - would be unique to the nation, a modern challenge to Americans' notion of the union.

In this respect, Puerto Rico's bid for statehood evolves into a debate over America's own identity. Some survey the U.S. landscape and see only rejection for Puerto Rico.

"Three million mulatto, Spanish-speaking poor: That's three strikes," said Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, an author and political analyst. "Three strikes, and you're out."

But statehood advocates cite the historic momentum they say places their goal within reach. Their party leadership is vastly popular, while local rivals are adrift; a federal attack on a key tax break for industry has left islanders craving the security that statehood would bring; Washington is in the hands of Democrats who could benefit from another heavily Democratic state.

Convinced that statehood would upgrade a U.S. citizenship they call "second class," advocates plan to run with the slightest encouragement from the November vote. Party leaders are prepared to spend tens of millions to lobby and, if necessary, embarrass the U.S. Congress into giving them an answer.

"We are not pleading. We are demanding our rights," said Romero, a former island governor who hopes to lead the charge from his position as Puerto Rico's sole, non-voting representative in Washington. If the majority of Puerto Ricans vote for statehood, Congress cannot ignore it, Romero said, or "in the world, they will be laughed at whenever they talk about democracy."

However ripe the conditions in Puerto Rico, the statehood bid comes at a difficult time for the American public. With a lackluster economy, Americans are in the throes of what lawyer Luis Davila-Colon calls a "nativist rush" - worried about free trade with Mexico, distressed by porous borders and concerned about the country's future.

"The statehood issue is going to force the U.S. to look inward at a time of great demographic changes in the fabric of our nation," Davila-Colon said. "It's going to force us to define what type of nation we want to be in the 21st century."

Davila-Colon predicts that statehood will fall short of an outright majority, perhaps postponing the confrontation for several years. But he is one of many who see a civil-rights battle looming as the statehood movement gathers steam. …