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Mitt Romney pens open letter to Puerto Ricans yet sidesteps statehood question

Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

Carlos Diaz, 84, reads the local newspaper "El Vocero," which on Wednesday had a front page showing both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and a headline reading, "The National Battle Arrives on the Island."

Mitt Romney said today in an open letter to the people of Puerto Rico that he “will work to settle the island’s 113-year political status question,” but he once again stopped short of saying whether he favors statehood.

Two days before island residents hold their presidential primary, the Republican candidate laid the foundation for his own visit to Puerto Rico with a letter expressing his support for Governor Luis Fortuno - who has endorsed him - and outlining his economic recovery program.

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“Governor Fortuno understands what I understand from my long experience working in the private sector: The most critical thing to get the economy rolling again is for government to get out of the way,” Romney wrote in a letter published in El Vocero, a Puerto Rican newspaper.

Romney was more delicate handling the statehood question, as has been President Obama, his potential Democratic opponent this fall.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico currently is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Its residents are US citizens, and many aspects of island life are controlled by Congress, yet Puerto Ricans cannot vote for president.

On Nov. 6, the same day the rest of the country participates in the presidential election, Puerto Ricans will vote on two status referendums.

The first will ask if residents want to retain their current territorial status. If a majority favor a change, they will be asked whether they favor statehood, independence, or “free association.”

In general, a new state is created when - after a territory votes to become a state - Congress votes to appoint a constitutional convention to write a state constitution and then approves admission to the union.

Some political analysts believe a statehood vote could benefit the Democrats, since Hispanics have tended to support the party. Any new state would gain two senators, as well as a number of House members based on population. The senators could especially help tip the partisan balance in a closely divided US Senate.

Romney said today: “Around the world, the United States has helped plant the seeds of democracy. Meanwhile, close to four million American citizens in Puerto Rico do not enjoy the same rights and privileges of democracy as their other fellow citizens. It is time to close the book on one of the great unresolved questions of American democracy. As president, I will provide the leadership and resources necessary to ensure that this century-old question gets resolved. That is my solemn pledge.”

Last year, Obama became the first president since John F. Kennedy to make an official state visit to Puerto Rico. He, too, has said he supports the island’s self-determination and will support whatever outcome emerges from this fall’s vote.

In late January, during a speech to a Hispanic Leadership Council meeting outside Miami, Romney was similarly noncommittal about his personal views.

While saying he agreed with Fortuno’s expectation that his residents will approve statehood, Romney wouldn’t expressly endorse making Puerto Rico the country’s 51st state.

“I can tell you that I will work with him to make sure that if that vote comes out in favor of statehood, that we will go through the process in Washington to provide statehood to Puerto Rico and, again, to create a model in the Caribbean and Latin America of the benefits of having freedom,” he said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also did not take a direct position, even after a Puerto Rican activist stood up and challenged him to say specifically whether he favored statehood.

“I believe the people of Puerto Rico should make the decision. It’s not my place to judge for Puerto Rico,” said Gingrich. “But what I’m telling you is that if the people of Puerto Rico make the decision they want to be a state, I will work actively to help them negotiate the process of accession to the United States.”

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.
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