Commonwealth status has its own advantages

Freedom Newspapers

The question of statehood for Puerto Rico is again bobbing to the surface like a mossy coconut, as it seems to with annoying regularity.

Some Republicans — including a few in the Bush clan’s inner circle — apparently have convinced themselves this would mean a political windfall for the GOP, in terms of courting the Hispanic/Latino vote. But we’ve never seen the math on that. And besides — it would be a supremely cynical reason for pushing statehood for the commonwealth.

Perhaps with this chimera in mind, the Bush administration last month “asked Congress to set yet another vote for the island’s citizens to voice their opinion about their future,” according to a report. But we can see little reason to force the issue.

A few radical islanders have over the years pushed for independence — the same types that drove the U.S. Navy out of a critical amphibious warfare training area on the island of Vieques, with the shameful acquiescence of President Bush. Many Puerto Ricans probably back statehood. But most seem content with commonwealth status, if they bother to notice.

Puerto Ricans already are American citizens, sort of. They have all the civil rights Americans do. They can benefit from federal programs, and they can serve in the U.S. military. But they pay no federal taxes and cannot vote for president — which is a trade-off many of us would be happy to make.

They lack any real representation in Congress. But so what? Most Americans lack any real representation in Congress. And the lack of political clout hasn’t left Puerto Rico marooned: The island continues to receive billions of dollars in federal aid each year, even without a helping hand from a friend on the appropriations committee. And given Congress’ low reputation among most Americans, maybe there’s virtue, and even a certain honor, in opting out.

Statehood is an issue that lends itself to rabble-rousing on the island. It’s a debate driven, in other words, by fringe elements and political opportunists. But most Americans aren’t clamoring for a resolution to the situation, any more than they lie awake at night wondering about Guam’s similar status.

Commonwealth status has advantages, allowing Puerto Ricans to claim solidarity with the United States when it suits them, but keep their distance when it doesn’t. And in fact, we sometimes wish New Mexico had the same prerogative. Perhaps New Mexico could negotiate a statehood-commonwealth swap with Puerto Rico. They could find out that being a state isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
And we could get a break on our federal taxes.