- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

For decades, cold warriors defended Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status as a bulwark against international communism. But these days it’s Republican Washington that seems uncomfortable with the commonwealth and is strangely flirting with Puerto Rican statehood. With financial chaos unfolding this week in San Juan — the island’s government might have to shut down if the legislature cannot approve a loan to cover its $738 million deficit — both cities’ energies would be better directed to the more immediate problems.

In December, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status proposed a referendum whose mechanics would all but ensure that commonwealth status is jettisoned. How odd that the Bush administration would think that Puerto Rico’s status is somehow unresolved — this happens to be Fidel Castro’s position, too — but public comments by task-force members have suggested the belief that commonwealth is just a waystation to either statehood or independence. And the solution they’ve devised would almost certainly make Puerto Rico the 51st state by creating runoffs with different options in successive rounds of voting.

This week Puerto Rican Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila decried the proposal as undemocratic, which it is. On four occasions over five decades, Puerto Ricans have endorsed the status quo. Presumably some conservatives might be unhappy paying for the island’s special treatment, which is understandable but misdirected. Fiscal prudence would only be just one element to consider among many (and it rings a little hollow given the relatively small impact on the overall federal budget). Commonwealth status has been quite beneficial to Puerto Ricans, of course, but it has also benefited the mainland in ways that would be easy to overlook — most significantly, by creating a foothold of stability in a volatile region very close to home.

In the Cold War, the tax benefits, subsidies and ease of U.S. travel went hand in hand with a shield from Fidelismo which benefited both the mainland and Puerto Rico. The shield is still relevant, at least as long as the administration prefers fewer Venezuelan-style strongmen ruining the region’s economies and wants more stable democracies in its backyard.

The task force’s recommendations wouldn’t cut Puerto Rico off, of course — they would create a brand-new 51st state. The politics behind that are intriguing, not least because for purely political reasons, it would seem odd for a Republican White House to push statehood. Do Republicans really want to contend with the permanent installment of two more Democrats in the Senate?

In any event, Puerto Ricans don’t seem to want statehood in sufficient numbers to make it a serious option. Hopefully President Bush will let his task force’s recommendations be forgotten.

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