The Universal Notebook: Wave a flag for the state of Puerto Rico

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The other day my Uncle Bill asked me what I thought of statehood for Puerto Rico. I had to tell him I’d never really thought about. After giving the matter some thought, I guess, like President Obama, I’d leave it up the people of Puerto Rico to decide.

Uncle Bill had a reasonable concern that the U.S. doesn’t do a very good job of taking care of its present citizenry, so adding a 51st state didn’t seem to make much sense to him. But then very little about the current political status of Puerto Rico makes much sense.

To begin with, Puerto Ricans are already U.S. citizens. The official currency of Puerto Rico is the U.S. dollar. And the U.S. flag flies over the Puerto Rican capitol in San Juan.

Puerto Rico statehood was in the news and on my uncle’s mind largely because of the Republican presidential primary. Mitt Romney won hands-down in Puerto Rico, but Rick Santorum made more news by saying that Puerto Ricans should have to speak English as a condition of statehood. He quickly backpedaled, of course, and blamed the media for putting his foot in his mouth.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War in 1898. Because it is a territory, even though Romney picked up the island’s convention delegates, his Puerto Rican supporters will not be able to vote for him in the general election.

Puerto Ricans are betwixt and between in most things. They pay federal payroll and Social Security taxes, for example, but they do not pay income taxes. They can serve in the U.S. military and do, providing more military volunteers that any state in the union.

But they can’t vote for president.

Several times in the past (1967, 1993, 1998), Puerto Rico has opted not to become a state. On Nov. 6, 2012, Puerto Ricans will go to the polls again to vote in a two-part referendum. First, they will be asked if they want to maintain their current territorial status. If the majority prefer a non-territorial alternative, they will be given three choices – statehood, independence, or free assocation (a vague form of sovereignty betwixt and between independence and statehood).

Should Puerto Rico decide on statehood, it would then be up to the U.S. Congress to decide whether to admit Puerto Rico to the union. If Puerto Rico – about the size of Connecticut, with 3.7 million people – becomes the 51st state, it would send six new members to the U.S. House and increase the number of U.S. senators to 102.

It would also be the poorest state in the union, with close to 15 percent unemployment and average per capita incomes about one-third the U.S. average. But whether statehood would cost American taxpayers more money is unclear: Puerto Rico already receives about $22 billion a year in aid.

The biggest stumbling block to Puerto Rico statehood that I can foresee in this country is that it would require a redesign of the American flag to accommodate 51 stars. Even though all of the major Republican candidates have endorsed Puerto Rico statehood, I can’t imagine how they are going to explain to their flag-waving, Bible-thumping supporters that Old Glory needs a face-lift. Heck, those folks want to bring back the colonial Gadsden flag.

Personally, I’ve often thought the good old red, white and blue would look great with a little green in it, so I’m certainly not opposed to a redesign. But if Puerto Rico is admitted and traditionalists insist on sticking with the 50-star American flag (traditional ever since Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union in 1959), I suggest we politely ask Gov. Rick Perry if he can arrange for Texas to secede.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.