By RANDY GLEASON
While Puerto Rico will soon be given another opportunity to become a state, some local political scientists expect the country will choose to remain a U.S. commonwealth, which some believe offers Puerto Ricans "the best of both worlds."
Congress is expected to pass a bill soon that would give Puerto Ricans three choices in this 100th anniversary year as an American territory: continued commonwealth status, independence or statehood.
Marc Becker, assistant professor of Latin American history at Illinois State University, said the decision is ultimately an economic one, and most Puerto Ricans are unwilling to exchange their measure of economic security for the risks of political independence. Remaining a commonwealth, he said, allows them to enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship while retaining their Puerto Rican nationality.
"For many people, remaining a commonwealth is the best choice," he said. "Perhaps it's not the ideal situation, but many consider it better than independence or becoming a state. My guess it that the status quo will prevail."
Personally, Becker would like the island to opt for independence. In the short run, there would be economic hardship, he said, but it would eventually lead to political autonomy and greater freedom. But most Puerto Ricans are unwilling to go down that path, he admitted.
Carlos Parodi, ISU associate professor of political science, agrees and explains that many Puerto Ricans probably think they have no real alternative because they've spent so many years under U.S. influence and have grown so dependent on this country.
"You cannot tell in the end if this is what they really want or whether it's purely materialistic interest," said Parodi, who recently visited the island and met many nationalists who are frustrated because so many people have adopted a colonial mentality, unwilling to take responsibility and the good and the bad that comes with autonomy. So the move to independence will once again fall way short, he predicted.
"I think Puerto Ricans are a divided soul," he said. "They want their cake and eat it too and that's what they're getting with the current situation. They can speak Spanish and enjoy the benefits of citizenship with the United States. They are enjoying the best of both worlds from their point of view."
Unlike previous nonbinding plebiscites, a vote for change would require Congress to pass legislation that would set up a 10-year transition either to independence or addition of Puerto Rico as the 51st state. A final status change, however, would still require additional congressional and Puerto Rican approval.
President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt all have endorsed the plebiscite bill as a way of giving Puerto Ricans a democratic choice for their future, although none has taken a position on statehood itself.
In 1993, Puerto Ricans voted for commonwealth status over statehood by a 48.6 percent to 46.3 percent margin. Independence received 4.4 percent.
Puerto Ricans who oppose statehood point out the advantages they have with commonwealth status. As members of the U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Ricans serve in the military and enjoy most of the privileges and responsibilities of their American citizenship, but they don't vote in presidential elections, don't pay federal income taxes and have only one nonvoting delegate in Congress.
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