By Ed Morales

Puerto Ricans have been second-class citizens for too long. Although they have participated as Americans both in war and as mainland citizens, island Puerto Ricans still can't vote for the president of the United States.

For too many years, the debate over Puerto Rico's status has amounted to a three-ring circus that has done nothing to solve the territorial status of the Caribbean island, whose residents are U.S. citizens. The island, which has been a de facto colony for 115 years, deserves much better.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a recent hearing to address a nonbinding plebiscite that took place last November.

The hearing - which was attended by only three members of the committee - was built on the premise that the statehood option won 61 percent of the vote. But that result has been questioned because pro-commonwealth campaigners asked their constituents to leave their ballots blank in protest. If the blank votes were counted, statehood would have received only 45 percent of the votes.

What's more, the plebiscite was written in an awkward two-part format designed to favor the statehood party, which expected to win reelection and consolidate its power. But Puerto Rican voters had tired of the statehood party's repressive tactics and the failure of its privatization agenda, voting out the incumbent governor, Luis Fortuno, as well as overturning his party's legislative majority.

Yet in the hearing, the committee members validated the false notion that the island's voters had chosen statehood. They badgered the flustered and inarticulate pro-commonwealth governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, with questions about an "enhanced commonwealth" option, and were more supportive of Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the only ranking member of the statehood party still in office.

Pierluisi stated that the commonwealth status is no longer legitimate, and pushed for an "up or down" vote, with only statehood or independence as the options. In the current cost-cutting atmosphere of the Republican-dominated House, however, it would be unlikely that statehood would be approved.

The commonwealth status should eventually be eliminated, but statehood is not the answer for an island with a Latin American cultural identity.

Puerto Rico should be granted its independence, but with a period of dual citizenship, and a substantial financial package, including favorable trade terms. It should not be cut off and left to fend for itself.

Puerto Rico does not need a three-ring circus to decide its fate. It needs a responsible U.S. policy to make up for centuries of colonial abuse by both Spain and America. Only then will it finally be free.

Ed Morales is a writer for the Progressive Media Project, which is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Contact him via pmproj@progressive.org.