Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, the Johns-Hopkins-educated governor of Puerto Rico, outsmarted himself. He presented the voters a referendum that would not have changed anything but would have stacked the deck for a future referendum in favor of a more autonomous commonwealth status with continued American citizenship. The voters turned his referendum into a message for statehood, which he opposes.
By 55-to-45, on Sunday, Puerto Rico's voters rejected a resolution to forbid a yes-or-no referendum on statehood and to demand that any status preserve Puerto Rico's "culture, language and identity" and Olympic team. Backers included not only the supporters of commonwealth in the governor's Popular Democratic Party but also the small minority favoring independence. The opposition New Progressive Party, which wants statehood, campaigned for a No vote. Everyone agreed that a No vote would be for permanent union with the U.S. The result was a clear pro-statehood message.
Puerto Ricans are accustomed to U.S. citizenship. The ability to move freely to the mainland for opportunity is cherished. Three-fifths of families in Puerto Rico receive food stamps. Most Puerto Ricans are patriotic Americans proud of their Hispanic culture and insular history. With Sunday's repudiation of Governor Hernandez Colon, who has been in office seven years this second time around and is wearing out his welcome, the stage is set for Pedro Rossello, leader of the New Progressives, to sweep into the governorship next year. He would offer a quick referendum on status, with or without congressional sanction.
There is the catch. President Bush but not all Republicans favor statehood. Democrats remain ambiguous. It is not clear that Congress would accede. Last year, Congress failed to approve a plebiscite and promise to accept the winner among three alternatives (statehood, commonwealth or independence), as demanded by the United Nations. Many congressmen, regardless of party affiliation, have problems with greater autonomy under commonwealth and also with statehood for a Spanish-speaking state much poorer than Mississippi. One difficulty would be the greater demands on the Treasury. The other is the growing resistance to Spanish as a second official U.S. language.
If the statehood forces should win out in Puerto Rico after many decades, they might be in for frustration in Washington. What is certain is that an attempt by Governor Hernandez Colon to strengthen the commonwealth status, which has served well since 1952, boomeranged. It turned into a victory for statehood, engineered by the leader trying hardest to thwart that cause.