It's a good thing that Gov. Pedro Rossello will not be petitioning Congress to make Puerto Rico the 51st state. The issue would not bring out the best in Congress, or even among his Republican allies.
The prospect of a new state retaining Hispanic identity and language would get tied up in arguments over the role of Spanish in the life of the existing United States. Statehood would not be assured, even though former Republican presidents campaigned for it and President Clinton promised to favor whatever the Puerto Rican people want.
The referendum Sunday was brought by the election sweep last year of the New Progressive Party, translated both as the statehood and Republican Party. The plebiscite was not binding, but would dictate whether Governor Rossello would seek statehood immediately. He will not.
The supporters of Commonwealth status, identified with the opposition Popular Democratic Party and with the stateside Democratic Party, came in first with 48.4 percent of the vote, while statehood carried 46.2 percent and independence 4.4 percent. Puerto Ricans care. The 1.7 million votes cast represented a turnout of 73 percent. The 2.6 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland could not vote. They vote where they live.
The U.S. conquered Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 and conferred U.S. citizenship on its people in 1917. The commonwealth status was invented by Gov. Luis Munoz Marin and took effect in 1952. Puerto Rico is self-governing but under American law. It has no vote in Congress or the Electoral College, and its people pay no federal taxes. These are attributes of location, not individuals. A Marylander in Puerto Rico pays no federal income tax and may not vote for president. A Puerto Rican in Maryland does, and may.
Commonwealth status works. Puerto Ricans are politically and economically fortunate compared to neighbors in Cuba, Haiti or, their closest kin, the Dominican Republic. But Puerto Rico is poorer than any U.S. state and, if business lost the tax breaks of Commonwealth status, would be even poorer as a state.
Although Commonwealth status won, its support is down from 76 percent in 1951 and 60 percent in 1967. Now Puerto Rico will be governed by statehood proponents pursuing Commonwealth policies. The issue is by no means laid to rest, however. Statehood forces will undoubtedly try again in a decade or so. Congress may eventually have to face whether the United States is prepared to include a state that officially speaks Spanish. But, fortunately, not for a while.