Puerto Rico should become the 51st American state, a former governor of the commonwealth told about 100 people at Boylston Hall yesterday.
In the first of three speeches sponsored by the Harvard Foundation and La Organizacion (La O), the Puerto Rican students group, Carlos Romero-Barcelo said residents should opt for statehood--not independence or the continuation of common wealth status--in a ballot referendum next year.
"The commonwealth is the barrier, the wall," Romero-Barcelo said. "As the Berlin Wall prevented East Germany from achieving democracy, the commonwealth is the invisible wall preventing equality."
The former governor said that statehood would not deprive the population of its cultural heritage because Puerto Rico is more like a "salad" than a "melting pot," with each "ingredient" retaining its identity. "We are an island, separated by 1000 miles of water. You cannot impose customs or language on anyone," he said.
Puerto Rico's current commonwealth status offers the islands tax benefits but does not give them full political representation. Romero-Barcelo said because welfare services are not provided by the federal government at the same level as for U.S. states, the tax shelters now enjoyed by corporations and wealthy residents actually hurt the island as a whole.
"We don't pay federal income tax," he said, "but we pay Puerto Rican taxes at a higher level than you pay in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
Supporters of the perpetuation of the commonwealth have also argued that Puerto Rico does not have enough economic independence to survive as a state. But Romero-Barcelo said the island is already a welfare commonwealth.
Romero-Barcelo also rejected the independence movement, which would establish Puerto Rico as a separate republic, because "economically, we would be in a very bad situation." He said he is "happy and content" with his U.S. citizenship.
But the former governor added, "If the doors were closed to us for equality [through statehood], we would have to build our own home. Romero-Barcelo said that if statehood fails, he would support independence. "It's a matter of dignity," he added.
La O and the Harvard Foundation initially planned a speech with the current governor of Puerto Rico, Rafael Hernandez-Colon, on Wednesday. That speech was cancelled because the governor is ill, but organizers said they plan to reschedule it. Hernandez-Colon is a major supporter of the commonwealth movement.
Yesterday's event was greeted with enthusiasm by members of La O, who cited the varied background of the audience as a recognition of the importance of the statehood question. "On the mainland as a whole, the public is non-informed or very misinformed," said La O secretary Andres W. Lopez '92. He said the speech at least helped the University community to be more informed.
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