July 4, 1998
Puerto Rico to be 51st U.S. state?

GUANICA, Puerto Rico (CNN) -- While the U.S. Congress is still debating the issue of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st member state of the United States, latest polls from Puerto Rico itself suggest the public mood is tipping in favor of making the commonwealth into a proper state.

Some Puerto Ricans appear to see full statehood as a cure-all for the island's economic ills, particularly in light of the unemployment rate of 14 percent.

"When you have a family, you have to move around. You have to look for a job," construction worker Gabriel Talavera told CNN in this village of 20,000 people on the southern coast.

For a fair number of Puerto Ricans, full statehood stands for a better economic future: "More jobs, more opportunities -- there is no doubt about it," another worker explained.

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. In 1952 people voted in favor of a Commonwealth status, which made the island a self-governing part of the United States. That status has been upheld despite two referenda on full statehood in 1967 and 1993.

Puerto Rico's delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives has a voice but no vote -- except in committees. And no federal income tax is collected from residents on income earned from local sources. Puerto Ricans also have a U.S. passport but cannot vote for president or Congress.

Puerto Rico's famous "Operation Bootstrap" -- begun in the 1940s -- succeeded in changing the island from "The Poorhouse of the Caribbean" to an area with the highest per capita income in Latin America. Special tax incentives and low interest loans have boosted outside investment in manufacturing and the development of the tourism.

However, a rising population has caused housing shortages and unemployment. And these days, many Puerto Ricans live in the United States, mostly in New York City.

Iris and Lourdes Borrero recently returned with their parents from the United States to Puerto Rico.

Iris, who was born in Virginia, told CNN that, while she favored full statehood, she also saw certain problems that might arise from full integration -- particularly language.

Puerto Rico has a predominantly Hispanic culture and only about a quarter of Puerto Ricans speak English. Iris believes that people will therefore say: "Now we have to learn another language. Now we gotta know English to get a job."

"And that's where there's gonna be a problem," Iris said.

Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.