- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

Puerto Rico has been in the news lately. Many congressional Republicans are furious over the Bush administrations decision to abandon Vieques as a bombing site for the U.S. Navy by 2003. They blame Karl Rove, the presidents top political adviser, for putting politics above national strategic interests in abandoning the site. Republicans on Capitol Hill insist that the decision was made to appeal to the Hispanic vote. Theyre right. Yet the administration would be wiser to maintain the U.S. militarys presence on Vieques, and court the important emerging Hispanic vote through another policy: embracing Puerto Rican statehood.
Recently, Puerto Ricos Senate Minority Leader Kenneth D. McClintock visited The Washington Times for a luncheon interview with editors and reporters to present his case that the tiny island become the 51st state in the Union. He was very convincing.
Few issues divide conservatives as much as Puerto Rican statehood. National Review, for example, has even gone so far as to state that the United States should prepare San Juan for eventual independence. Other conservatives believe that Puerto Ricos current Commonwealth status, which it acquired in 1952, suits the interests of both Puerto Ricans and mainland Americans. Hence, they argue, it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. The central argument made against statehood is that the United States has historically been unable to absorb alien cultures and societies. By allowing Puerto Ricos nearly 4 million Spanish-speaking and predominantly Catholic residents into the union, the United States would create another Quebec scenario a distinct region in culture and language that may become a source of perpetual political instability and secessionist sentiment.
Yet as Puerto Ricos Mr. McClintock pointed out, the Quebec analogy does not apply to Puerto Rico. The French-speaking province is an industrial powerhouse, which along with Ontario dominates Canadas economy. Moreover, Quebecers make up nearly 25 percent of Canadas population, providing separatists with a critical mass to support the provinces drive for independence. During the past decade, opinion polls consistently demonstrate that Quebec separatism has the support of 40 percent to 50 percent of the population. By contrast, Puerto Rican independentistas rarely achieve 5 percent support.
It is therefore erroneous to suggest that by entering the union an island with a population slightly over 1 percent of the total on the American mainland and a per-capita income of $9,800 would pose a secessionist threat to the greatest economic and military superpower in history. Furthermore, unlike most French-speaking Quebecers , most Puerto Ricans want to learn English as a second language. Should Puerto Rico become a state, the proper analogy is not Quebec but Hawaii. Despite being an island kingdom in the 19th century and possessing its own language and religion, Hawaii has become a full-fledged state while preserving its distinct cultural identity. The same would apply to Puerto Rico.
Many conservatives do not realize that rather than being a liability, Puerto Ricos well-entrenched Hispanic heritage presents a unique opportunity for Republicans. By embracing the issue of statehood the Bush administration can enhance its appeal to the largest minority voting bloc in the country. President Bush can recognize the reality of a multicultural America through the symbolic significance of supporting the creation of a predominantly Hispanic state. By championing Puerto Ricos entry into the Union, Mr. Bush can send a clear message to Hispanics that his "compassionate conservatism" goes beyond speaking a few phrases in Spanish and making several high profile appointments.
Many Republicans, however, fear that by granting statehood Puerto Rico will become a Democratic stronghold. They cite numerous reasons for their concern, icluding the islands high unemployment, its heavy reliance on social welfare programs and the fact that nearly one-third of its work force is employed by the public sector. They believe that Puerto Rico will become the political equivalent of Hawaii: a hotbed of big government activism, which in the long run may tip the legislative balance of power in favor of the left.
Yet, rather than being a liberal Democratic fiefdom, Puerto Rico will more likely be a swing state. Although the islands residents tend to favor statism and lavish entitlement programs, they are also deeply Catholic and socially conservative. This renders them receptive to the Republicans message on abortion, family values and homosexual marriage. In fact, Puerto Rican statehood can help buttress the GOP against the onslaught of the forces of social liberalism, which have defeated the Republican Party on every cultural front for the past decade.
It will also help advance Mr. Bushs foreign policy agenda, especially his goal of a Western Hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005 and closer ties between the United States and Latin America. With its strategic location in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico can act as a vital stepping stone to the vast markets of Central and South America.
More importantly, statehood will demonstrate to governments in Latin America, many of whom still view America as the ugly Gringo and resent the perceived legacy of belligerent imperialism, that the United States does not view Hispanic societies as inferior or second-class. As Mr. McClintock put it, admitting San Juan into the Union will show anti-American nationalists in the region that "Uncle Sam is no longer Uncle Bully."
Obviously, the question of Puerto Rican statehood should be left to the residents of the island who have to live with the consequences of their decision. Thus far, Puerto Ricans have been content to keep their political status unchanged.
However, successive referendums demonstrate that the statehood option has been rapidly gaining momentum. Opinion polls now show that a plurality of residents on the island favor becoming full-fledged Americans. It is only a matter of time before Puerto Rico enters the Union as the 51st state. Instead of resisting the inevitable, Republicans would be wise to embrace it.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is an assistant national editor at The Washington Times.

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