What should we make of the Gallup Poll of Americans showing their preference for the future status of Puerto Rico to be 30% for statehood, 28% for independence, and 26% for the existing commonwealth arrangement, with 11% unsure and 5% answering some version of "none of the above?" Apparently the opinion molders who supply us with what passes for news think there is nothing at all to be made of it because, in spite of the Gallup organization's March 13 press release which came only a few days after the one-vote victory of a bill in the House of Representatives that would virtually put the impoverished, predominantly Spanish-speaking island on a fast track to becoming the country's 51st state, the news of the poll seems not to have been reported. I have discovered no one who has heard of the poll, not even the people at English First, the organization that led the fight against the legislation, and the subject of the poll hasn't even turned up on Deja News, the Internet archive of news discussion groups. In sum, what Americans think about the future makeup of the country, whether we shall decide to make a radical break with our history and to attempt to absorb into our body politic a Quebec-like entity that quite determinedly uses a different language and is of a different culture is not important enough even to merit mention in our newspapers or radio or TV news shows. With the small exception of the isolated news group, soc.culture.puerto-rico, where I discovered it, it is not even being discussed on the Internet.
So forget the outcome of the poll for now. The more important question to ask is why the poll has been neglected. One possibility is that those who decide what is news simply reflect the general feelings of the public, which seems to have a largely complacent, out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude about the overall subject of Puerto Rico. The more knowledgeable among them know that Puerto Rico has not yet manifested even a plurality for statehood, much less a majority, among its own people, so they regard mainland Americans' attitude toward Puerto Rico statehood as a moot point. The prospect is so far off as to be not worth even thinking about.
Less knowledgeable complacency seems to be grounded in the widespread belief that making a territory into a state is a more difficult thing to do, by law, than simply passing any run-of-the-mill bill. It is not. H.R. 856, in fact, would put a Congressional vote on the question of statehood on a sort of fast track the minute that one person more than half the Puerto Rican voters in a plebiscite ever decide that they want statehood.
A third apparent reason for complacency is related to the first. Sympathy toward statehood among the Puerto Ricans is connected in the public imagination with the belief that it is a measure of how much the Puerto Ricans are "Americanized," or, at least, how much they want to be. Just as there is no reason to worry now about the matter because Puerto Ricans haven't shown that they want to be a state, there is no reason to worry about it should they ever do so, because that will show that they are well on the road to being absorbed into the great American melting pot. A sort of easy, natural evolution is imagined here. Those holding this view would be surprised to learn that it is in no way reflected in H.R. 856. The bill, while paying lip service to the desirability of greater English proficiency among the Puerto Rican populace (the same could be said for the Mexican populace), pretty much concedes the point to Puerto Rican statehood leaders that the Spanish language and the Latin-American culture of Puerto Rico are "not negotiable." They are to vote on statehood on their terms, in other words, not on the terms that most Americans would certainly believe to be the proper ones.
This is the legislation that commanded the support of the Democratic President Bill Clinton and most of the members of his party in the House as well as Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich and such members of the House Republican leadership as Tom DeLay, Bill McCollum, and Dan Burton. Only strong opposition among the Republican rank and file caused the close outcome of the vote and gave Senate Majority leader Trent Lott pause about bringing up the legislation in the current session of the Congress.
If assimilation into the American melting pot is not what animates those favoring statehood in Puerto Rico, then what does? There are reasons of principle and reasons of the pocketbook. The principled reason is that they want to have all the rights of other American citizens, which they have been since 1917. Not having full representation in Congress and not being able to vote for the president, they are, in effect, second class citizens. The problem with that argument is that though becoming a state may be necessary to end second-class citizenship, but unless there are radical changes within the United States, and perhaps even in basic human nature, as long as they cling to their different language and culture they will remain second class citizens in fact in the United States. Ultimately, the only solution to the second-class citizenship problem is either full assimilation or independence, though one could well expect a Spanish-speaking state in due time to try to ameliorate the situation by attempting to force bilingualism on the rest of us.
As for the pocketbook motivation, one of the quickest ways to get yourself labeled an anti-Puerto Rican racist is to suggest that they might want to become a state so they can get more federal handouts, except that this is precisely the argument that statehood leader Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo makes in his book Statehood is for the Poor. The General Accounting Office has agreed that although Puerto Ricans would pay taxes as a state that they do not now pay, incomes are so low and the tax base so narrow, while the additional programs that the island would qualify for are so generous for a people so impoverished, on balance the island would get upwards of two billion dollars a year. But the bigger pocketbook motivation is probably not the prospect of more money but fear of eventual loss of current money. Starting in the mid-1970s when the Congress began for the first time to treat Puerto Rico like a state in the Food Stamp program, the residents of the island have been made utterly dependent upon a rain of federal dollars that now totals over $10 billion a year. Now, after having created the dependence, Congress comes along with plebiscite legislation which contains the pointed reminder that under the current status arrangement Puerto Rico is "an unincorporated territory subject to the plenary authority of Congress arising from the Territorial Clause (of the Constitution)." In other words, until Puerto Rico becomes a state, the Congress has absolute power to take away everything it has so generously given, and that could include more than just money. It could also include U.S. citizenship. The only way to make sure you hang onto these things is to vote to become a state.
In light of these facts, perhaps the Gallup pollsters should have asked this question, "Do you favor bribing and threatening the Spanish-speaking nation that we conquered in 1898 into becoming our 51st state?" Capped off with H.R. 856, that pretty much sums up what the policy of the U.S. Congress has been, whether or not it realizes it, over the past quarter century. Had they asked the question that way the numbers answering in the affirmative would have been very low. The Congress, in other words, is pursuing a policy toward Puerto Rico that certainly does not meet the approval of the American people.
Now let's take another look at the answers to the question that was asked. The responses, predictably, very closely correspond to what one would get if he were to ask people at random, "Would you like to have the prize behind door A, door B, or door C?" Since the respondents have no way of knowing what's behind either door, there is just as good a reason to choose one as the other and, therefore, each would attract about the same number of people. Similarly, after you subtract the really honest ones who admitted to themselves that they don't know enough to offer an opinion, each status choice got about a third of the vote. How should they know what to say? Who knows what we've been up to in Puerto Rico, and how should they know? The failure of the national press to report on the outcome of this poll is just the latest failure in reporting on Puerto Rico, and our policies toward it, in general. It is that very failure, in fact, that gives the poll so little meaning. A healthy democracy is based upon the assumption of an informed electorate, and it is hard to think of any important subject that we have been less informed about by our press than Puerto Rico policy.
The Gallup press release went on to say that the more educated tended to favor Puerto Rico statehood more than the less educated. One definitely should not interpret that to mean that they do so because they know more about the issue. Rather, it is probably more an illustration of the old saying that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." Only when we look at the final bit of information in the Gallup release do we begin to see some glimmering of meaning in it. The last time a poll was taken on the subject, in 1977, it came out 20% for independence, 24% for statehood, and 33% for commonwealth. At that time the commonwealthers had been in power in Puerto Rico for most of a quarter century. There was also greater fear of the consequences of independence given the virulence of the Cold War and the fear of communism in the Caribbean. Those two factors explain, I believe, what little diminution in support for commonwealth there has been and rise in support for the two alternatives, particularly for independence.
Finally, the reader should be reminded once again that it would be a mistake to read too much into this latest poll. That was precisely what was being done by a Puerto Rican opponent of statehood whose posting I saw on soc.culture.puerto-rico, incidentally apprising me of the existence of the poll. Puerto Rico may be one of the few places on the globe where they understand little more about America than Americans understand about them. Most think that Americans are as interested in what goes on in Puerto Rico as they are themselves. In this case the writer took this poll to mean that since only 30% of Americans favor statehood for Puerto Rico, the chances of Puerto Rico ever becoming a state are remote. It would have been disturbing to him to realize that the poll results reflected ignorance and apathy more than anything else. A pro-statehood opponent did not challenge his premise, but then showed himself to be in much greater touch with the reality of the situation than either the anti-statehooder or most Americans. "It doesn't matter what the American people want, " he said. "What matters in this process is what the people of Puerto Rico want."
Anyone who has observed the operation of the U.S. Congress, not just in their policy toward Puerto Rico over the past quarter century but also in such recent actions as their approval of the NAFTA and the strengthened GATT, must agree that this Puerto Rican writer is, unfortunately, correct. Actually, it's even worse than that. It is only what 50% plus one resident of Puerto Rico say they want at the time the federally-sanctioned plebiscite is held that matters, as the current legislation is set up. The undoubted overwhelming majority of Americans who oppose statehood for Puerto Rico could have as allies almost half of all residents of Puerto Rico, plus a substantial share of the others in their heart of hearts, and it would count for naught. Our imperial Congress would go about its business.
David Martin, May 7, 1998
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