Puerto Rico split over union with US

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 March, 1998, 12:00am

America spent much of the 19th century expanding southwards and westwards from the original 13 East Coast colonies, picking up new states at a furious pace. Not all the new members of the Union entered the fold by orthodox or peaceful methods; Louisiana had to be bought from the French, while Texas fought for its independence from Mexico before joining the United States. Then along came the Civil War, which threatened to split the country in two before the Yankee victory cemented the union in stone.

By the turn of the century, the expansion had completed its course, and there was nowhere else to go - apart from the Pacific Ocean and the frozen north when, in 1959, Hawaii and Alaska became the 49th and 50th stars to join the stripes. Now, as we move towards the end of the 20th century, with the US enjoying great prosperity and relative social stability, is there any reason to welcome a 51st star into the fold? There are, in fact, two strong candidates for that honour. One is the District of Columbia, which as the federal capital enjoys no constitutional right to the status of statehood. Because that denies its 600,000 residents the right to have fully representative members of Congress - its delegates can speak but not vote - advocates of DC statehood claim they are victims of the old chestnut, taxation without representation. But given the city's appalling track record of mismanagement and fiscal disaster in the 25 years it has had some degree of autonomy, the chances of Congress voting to grant it statehood are remote.

Candidate number two is Puerto Rico, the US territory in the Caribbean, whose potential statehood has recently been one of the most hotly debated subjects on Capitol Hill. For the first time in its history, the House of Representatives voted to allow the island to hold a referendum to decide whether it wants to remain a commonwealth (the politically correct term for colony), become an American state, or go independent. One might have thought that the event, with its potential to bring an historical change to the country's makeup, would have stolen the headlines away from Monica Lewinsky for at least a day or two.

As it happens, most Americans were probably only vaguely aware the House debate even took place, and for several reasons. First, the vote itself could not have been less decisive. The bill was passed 209-208, and only after a Democrat changed his vote in favour of the motion at the last minute. The narrowness of the margin probably means that the Senate, whose leadership was already lukewarm about tackling the Puerto Rico issue, might see little point in taking it up and passing it into law. Apart from the four-year campaign by an obscure Alaskan Congressman to bring about the vote, it is not terribly clear why the future of Puerto Rico is an issue at all - because if Congress is split down the middle on the matter, the people of the island fare no better.

Five years ago Puerto Rico held its own non-binding plebiscite, in which the biggest share of the vote went to the 48 per cent who wanted to keep the current status as a commonwealth. Only 46 per cent voted for statehood, while a handful wanted independence. It is a rare occurrence in the history of colonialism that a dependent territory, given the chance to speak its mind, should opt for the least assertive option of the three. It is comforting enough for Washington to know that there is next to no separatist sentiment in Puerto Rico, but the fact that there was not even a majority in favour of the greater self-government that statehood would bring is an overwhelming compliment to the American rulers.

The fact that the island has long been happy with the status quo can only be a reflection of how it has been treated under US rule, in contrast to its previous history under the Spanish. As members of a commonwealth, the 3.8 million Puerto Ricans are subject to US military draft and do not have full representation in Congress. But the advantages are huge: they do not pay federal income tax to Washington, even though US$10 billion (HK$77.3 billion) of Washington money is poured into the territory each year in welfare and other social spending; they also have automatic US citizenship, a far more generous treatment than any British dependent territory citizen ever got from London. As a result, there are another 2.8 million Puerto Ricans living freely on the US mainland.

In addition, a post-war programme to industrialise the island's economy has brought many benefits. Its per capita income of around US$7,900 a year might be less than half that of America's poorest state, Mississippi, but that still makes it the richest economy in the entire Caribbean/Central American region. With this in mind, it is understandable that Puerto Ricans are reluctant to grasp the greater power that the island would enjoy as the 51st state. Apart from the economic uncertainty - they would have to pay income tax, for one thing - the inhabitants also fear that full assumption into the US would compromise their cultural identity.

Advocates of statehood cheered the one-vote victory in the House, but they must know the issue is effectively dead for some time. There is still much work to do to convince a large majority of people in the US as well as Puerto Rico that changing the island's status makes sense.

And without a healthy majority behind such a move, it is difficult to imagine Washington running the risk of sparking a political fire over a colony which seems content with the way things are.