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Ford's Puerto Rico Gesture


By Dain Borges

A MADMAN who stands in front of the Pieta with a hammer in his pocket isn't alone in wanting to go down in history. Presidents can feel the urge with equally disastrous results. Richard Nixon's need to keep the tapes was his downfall, and Gerald Ford's last grand gesture, proposing statehood for Puerto Rico, was his last blunder. Ford had an enthusiasm for drives and campaigns with the flair of Chamber of Commerce resolutions. And, whether impeaching Earl Warren, Whipping Inflation Now, or inoculating every American for swine flu, they tended to fizzle out quickly. Still, when he announced during a skiing trip at Vail that he would propose legislation to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, he started the island.

Like last summer, when he didn't notify Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon about his plans to invite heads of state for a summit conference at the Rockefellers' resort, he caught even statehood's advocates by surprise. So it seems unlikely that Ford simply meant to pay off Governor-elect Carlos Romero Barcelo, a statehooder and a closet Republican, for the convention votes Puerto Rican delegates gave him. A day or so after his pronunciamento, Romero's Washington commissioner Baltasar Corrada del Rio held a press conference to say that statehood now would be premature.

Why did Ford do it, if not to please his friends? He possibly felt that it is in the interest of the United States to assure control over the secret petroleum deposits off the north shore of the island, or perhaps he made an empty offer as a gambit in the forthcoming debates over Puerto Rico in the United Nations Decolonization Committee. He gave good reason to suspect the latter when he used his arrival at the economic summit as an occasion for warning Cuba that the United States would never relinquish Puerto Rico. If we take him at his word, he acted out of sympathy with Puerto Rico's aspirations--no doubt, as he saw them through the manicured hedges of the Dorado Beach Hotel.

Right after Ford's announcement came a second surprise, the publication of a poll conducted by Gallup in the United States, in which 59 per cent of the Americans interviewed said they favored statehood for Puerto Rico. Now the question was phrased as follows: "Puerto Ricans recently elected a pro-statehood governor. Do you favor statehood for Puerto Rico?" Only an enemy of democracy could have said no. And in other polls, about a fifth have said they favored independence, with an equal number who had never heard of the island. Many Americans do not understand, for example, that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, with full political rights when they live in the States. It is much more serious than a lame duck President's whim, when a majority of Americans seem to believe statehood would be good for the Puerto Ricans and the United States.

So far, Puerto Rico's Commonwealth status has worked in the interests of the United States. An outright colony from 1902 until 1952, it then became a self-administering colony inside American tariff walls and outside American tax laws. The idea was to postpone the decision about status, provide training in democratic self-government, and turn the island from a giant sugar plantation into an industrial paradise. All these projects, particularly the last, were fairly successful until the general depression hit Puerto Rico so hard that the government was reduced to advertising it as "Profit Island, U.S.A." in the Wall Street Journal.

It is hard to argue, if anyone does, that statehood would profit the rest of the United States. The system of tax incentives and cheap labor that has attracted investors up to now would have to go; there are no grounds for supposing the economy would improve, except through some massive welfare program. Per capita income in Puerto Rico is about $2300, while in Mississippi, the poorest state, it is over $4000. Though every state contains pockets of misery that are worse off, no single administrative unit is so depressed. The island's geographic isolation would make any renewed private investment unlikely.

PUERTO RICANS feel very differently and ambiguously about the United States. After years of association, many know the U.S. from a tour in the Armed Forces or service in minimum-wage industries in the Northeast. Everyone has part of his family living there. And the tie with the United States has brought branches of every imaginable institution into the island: there are subsidiaries of the Rotary Club, of the pentecostal churches, of J.C. Penney's. The island has gotten just enough of the benefits of the American way of life to feel jealous of it and superior to the rest of Latin America. With the comforts of a consumer society, Puerto Rico has also gotten the problems: industrial society, highway proliferation, drug addiction.

The real addiction, of course, is to Federal welfare. There are hit songs about USDA surplus food allotments, and now about the food stamp program, which have done a marvelous job of ending hunger. The massive support that the food stamp program provides, which some consider just reparations for the wealth subtracted from Puerto Rico, is mostly perceived as the only difference between Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean.

The recent election of a pro-statehood candidate, Carlos Romero Barcelo, did not send Washington a mandate for statehood. The vote was probably more a rejection of the incumbent's failure to solve the economic problems, than a positive reaction to Romero's talents. In fact, despite the deep penetration of American styles and institutions and goods into Puerto Rico, there was a minority majority against statehood in the plebescite ten years ago, and there has always been a sizeable majority of intransigent opponents of any association with the United States.

The mildest opponents are the cultural nationalists who fear homogenization would overtake Puerto Rico as it has other regions of the United States. Completely integrated with the United States, Puerto Rico's culture would dissolve like a drop of Tabasco in a vat of mashed potatoes. Its language, however, would remain a problem. Back when the United States took the Southwest territories from Mexico, they had no qualms and little difficulty in making everyone speak English. But now the country no longer has the moral conviction to demand the assimilation of immigrants. Bilingual education, and for well-organized minorities, bilingual social services, have been growing quietly since the '60s. The trend is bad enough now, and unless the States plan to repeat the linguistic and cultural squabbles that plague Canada, they should reconsider absorbing Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico would resemble Quebec in other ways. There would always be a separatist party. There was one before the current fashion of civil war and balkanization, and there will be one afterwards. Its members are the unreconstructed heirs of the tradition of nationalist politics, the victims of American racism, all those who reject the American way of life. Some of them will always be furious enough to shoot up the House of Representatives or blow up a Wall Street restaurant. The world cannot be run by fear of fanatics, but neither can a nation be constituted through wishful thinking and simple majorities.

THIS SPECULATION leads to the prophecies of a Cassandra, but the prospect of statehood does evoke ghoulish images. The cruellest trick for exterminating coyotes on the western ranges is to freeze a compressed spring inside a chunk of horsemeat. When the greedy animal gulps it down, his body heat melts the ice and the spring expands, piercing his stomach. It may seem expedient now to offer statehood to Puerto Rico rather than be discredited internationally as colonialists; to many Puerto Ricans it seems equally comfortable to be swallowed by the wealthiest best on earth. Ford could go down in history as the one who sniffed at the bait.

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