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Puerto Rico's Status

PUERTO Rico's new governor, Pedro Rossello, who was sworn in Jan. 2, hopes to make the commonwealth the 51st member of the United States of America. He plans to hold a Puerto Rican plebiscite on statehood this year.

Dr. Rossello, a physician who was educated at Notre Dame and Yale Universities, has chosen a significant moment in the history of the Americas to revive the statehood issue.

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In the final days of George Bush's presidency, Washington, besides being preoccupied with the inauguration of a new president and with events in Africa and Europe, saw the signing last month of a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. The Bush administration has touted it as an economic boon for the continent.

But NAFTA promises no boon for Puerto Rico. Quite the contrary, the new pact seems certain to undercut trade advantages enjoyed by the commonwealth, such as not having to pay US taxes and having the freedom to offer special incentives to industries.

Mexico's wage standards are much lower than Puerto Rico's, and economic planners in San Juan feel that businesses will be lured away from the commonwealth.

Governor Rossello says the changes indicated by NAFTA demand that Puerto Rico seriously consider statehood.

Aside from NAFTA's impact, statehood would likely cost Puerto Rico most of its present economic advantages. But if those advantages are to be lost to NAFTA anyway, Puerto Ricans might well want to give the possible advantages of statehood another look.

More than half of Puerto Rico's 3 million-plus citizens have spent part of their lives in the United States or have relatives there.

Republicans in the US have tended to believe that welcoming Puerto Rico aboard would mean adding three new Democrats in Congress: two senators and a House member.

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This is not the issue on which statehood for Puerto Rico should stand or fall. Even if it were assumed that the "State of Puerto Rico" would be heavily Democratic, much more than partisan political advantage is at stake. The people of Puerto Rico are, de facto, American citizens: Puerto Rico was ceded to the US in 1898, a prize of the Spanish American War.

Rossello and his New Progressive Party swept the elections for governor and won strong majorities in both houses of the legislature as well as control of most cities and towns. Their candidate for the nonvoting seat in the US Congress won, too.

Circumstances make 1993 a plausible time for serious consideration of statehood for Puerto Rico. Should statehood be approved by a majority of Puerto Ricans, members of the US Congress - after consulting their own constituents - would decide the outcome.

If Puerto Ricans want statehood, they should have it.

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