Opinion: To Be or Not to Be

On a flight back to New York from San Juan a couple months ago, I chanced to sit next to Richard L. Carrión, the urbane and savvy man who runs and owns a hunk of Banco Popular, the big Puerto Rican-based commercial bank, and its related businesses, and also helps steer the International Olympic Committee. After he diplomatically answered my several questions about prospects for banks like his during this current real estate nightmare, we talked about politics; specially, the future status of Puerto Rico.

Whether Puerto Rico becomes a state or an independent country, or remains a commonwealth, which is like being a territory or a colony with benefits, is the perennial Holy Grail of Puerto Rican politics, coming up daily during heated conversations that divide Puerto Rican families.

Mr. Carrión described a recent public meeting he had in Puerto Rico with Massachusetts senator John Kerry. On a fact-finding mission, the senator asked Mr. Carrión his opinion on the status question, to which Mr. Carrión told me he answered essentially, ‘Why ask me, when we both know it is the United States which will decide.’

That informed cynicism is the prevailing attitude among members of the island's educated elite, certainly those I’ve spoken with lately. Having lived through referendums in 1967, 1993, and 1998, all of which opted to continue the status quo, they believe the island is stuck in that melancholy middle. It may often feel like it’s a different country from the United States, a Spanish-dominant Latino country. Still, virtually no one there wants to abandon either his or her U.S. citizenship or the enormous federal largesse that flows from Washington to San Juan at the rate of about $22 billion annually in aid, federal tax breaks and entitlements, according a current book, ‘Pay to the Order of Puerto Rico: The Cost of Dependence.’

With scant eagerness for the fiscal and political uncertainty of separation from the world’s richest and most powerful nation, ‘independence’ is also a non-starter, generally winning less than three or four percent of the vote in recent elections.

The disadvantages of commonwealth, like the fact island residents can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections or that their own elected representative to the U.S. Congress has no vote, seem relatively minor concerns compared to independence and being set adrift on an uncertain Caribbean Sea where pirates like Fidel Castro still roam.

On the other hand, statehood is also a daunting prospect, especially to the socially conservative old timers. Folks like my tías and tíos worry that if Puerto Rico became a state they would be made to feel second-class, as Spanish is inevitably subordinated to English and Puerto Rico is remade into a kind of Nevada or Mississippi with salsa.

Stuck with the majority’s inability to make the hard choice between statehood or independence, there is this feeling among many that since the island is a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States anyway, then unless and until Congress takes the lead and specifically pushes everyone down the road to Puerto Rican statehood by agreeing out front to recognize whenever islanders decide, then Puerto Rico’s ambiguous, corrosive commonwealth status will continue forever.

But a federal task force created during the last days of the Clinton administration, sustained under President George W. Bush and expanded under President Obama has finally issued a comprehensive report that seeks to empower the residents of Puerto Rico to chart their own course when it comes to status, while at the same time calling on Congress to honor that result— an enormous, if not impossible challenge.

Released Wednesday, under the ‘President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico Status’ plan, it would create a two-stage referendum on the island: First, a vote on whether residents wanted to remain part of the United States; then, if they voted ‘yes,’ on whether Puerto Rico would be a full-fledged state or continue as a commonwealth.

Or, in the highly unlikely possibility they voted for independence, then whether they wanted independence with continuing legal ties to the United States (like Britain and its former colonies) or as a nation completely separate and apart.

Puerto Rico’s Republican governor and statehood advocate Luis Fortuño is committed to holding the referendum by the end of his term in 2012, but because change is scary, I fear Puerto Rico’s voters will choose the path of least resistance, maintaining commonwealth and the status quo as step-child in the family of nations.

I’ve been part of the impassioned, if circular conversation on status since 1969, when my involvement with the radical Young Lords, a New York-based Puerto Rican activist group, helped steer me toward advocating the island’s independence. Better the pride of independence than continuing the century-old welfare colony relationship that has crippled Puerto Rican society and wrecked havoc on families.

But better still would be statehood; if America will have us, which I doubt. There is no way a Republican-dominated House will allow the inclusion in the Union of a state of approximately four million mostly poor, mostly Spanish-speaking people who could then immediately elect two Democratic senators and four or five Democratic congressmen.

Can you imagine that congressional debate even happening given the raging ill-will toward anything that reminds people of Latino immigrants or the already burgeoning U.S. Hispanic population?

No, I fear the entire federal task force effort concerning Puerto Rico’s status is nothing more than another wordy, though worthwhile, exercise in futility. The powers that be in Washington have zero real interest in a fifty-first state; not us anyway, not now. Still, if Puerto Ricans did vote for statehood, sign me up for the fight to help them get it.

Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.

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