Puerto Rican Politicians Debate Island's Future

Three Puerto Rican politicians, facing off at a Kennedy School debate last night, sharply disagreed on whether remaining a commonwealth would best serve the island's political and economic interests.

The trio of experts--an independence party official, the speaker of the island's congress, and the capital's mayor--also argued the pros and cons of statehood and independence before an Institute of Politics Forum audience of 175.

Puerto Rican independence party leader Ruben Berrios rapped commonwealth "colonialism" as a thing of the past, saying the island "is a colony of the United States basically for the same reasons it was a colony of Spain--for geopolitical reasons."

"There are 170 nations in the world and only one commonwealth. Is the rest of the world so stupid and Puerto Rico so smart that it has discovered something new? We shall overcome!" Berrios said.

The independence part leader said that Puerto Ricans needed "a republican form of government" where important political and economic decisions were not made by the United States Congress. Statehood would relegate Puerto Rico to the staus of a "permanent tropical ghetto," the at-large senator said.


Another speaker argued in favor of the current commonwealth status. "It has its faults like democracy, but also like democracy it works," said Rony Jarabo, speaker of the island's house of representatives and a member of the ruling Popular Democratic Party.

He said that statehood would lead to a $1.4 billion loss, equal to half the central government's budget, and to a 40 percent increase in unemployment.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but pay no federal income tax under commonwealth status. Federal tax laws also provide incentives for U.S. companies to locate in Puerto Rico.

Jarabo said that these economic benefits would be lost under statehood. He said independence would bring "staggering" economic losses to the island.

San Juan Mayor Baltasar Corrada disagreed. Describing commonwealth status as a "middle of the road full of potholes," Corrada said statehood would best meet Puerto Rico's "fundamental aspirations for security and freedom."

The island's 23 percent unemployment rate demonstrates the failure of commonwealth status, the New Progressive Party member said. He refuted opponents' claims the island's population could not afford to pay federal income tax, saying such a program could be phased in successfully over the course of 15 to 20 years.

"The United States is a cultural plurality," Corrada said, adding that statehood would not lead to a loss of the island's Hispanic culture.

Manuel Rodriguez, a Northeastern University law professor, moderated the debate.