In a surprise announcement, President Ford today proposed to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.
"The common bonds of friendship, tradition, dignity and individual freedom have joined the people of the United States and the people of Puerto Rico," Ford said in a statement. "It is now time to make these bonds permanent through statehood . . ."
Legislation accompanying the proposal would require majority approval of both houses of Congress. The idea would also have to be ratified by the people of Puerto Rico.
If approved, it would mark the first admission of a state since Hawaii became the 50th state on Aug. 21, 1959.
In Puerto, Rico, the proposal was not met with enthusiasm.
It coincides with the inauguration as commonwealth governor Sunday of former San Juan Mayor Carlos Romero Barcelo, who ran on a statehood ticket and won election in November with 48.3 per cent of the vote.
But Romero's reaction to day was noncommittal. He had soft-pedaled statehood in his election campaign, and Ford's move thus was seen by Puerto Rican political observers as an embarrassment to Romero.
Those whom Romero had defeated in the November election who favored either a commonwealth status or independence were not so restrained, however.
Lame duck Gov. Rafael HernandezColon, who is pro-commonwealth, said that "President Ford's proposal does not correspond to the will of the Puerto Rican people . . . It goes against Puerto Rican's right to free selfdetermination."
A spokesmen for a pro-independence party labeled the proposal "a publicicity stunt."
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory when it was ceded to this country by Spain in 1898. It became a commonwealth in 1952, and the nature of its eventual status has been a major political topic on the island ever since.
In October, 1975, a joint U.S. Puerto Rican advisory group recommended after 14 months of study that a new compact of permanent union be formed between Puerto Rico and the United States. It was this proposed compact which Hernandez-Colon advocated in his recent re-election campaign.
Ford carefully refrained from commenting on the compact during the election campaign lest it seem like an effort to interfere in the Puerto Rican election. Aides said he discussed the matter at length with both gubernatorial candidates when he visited Puerto Rico for an international economic summit meeting last June.
In his statement today the President said that the compact proposed in 1975, "significant and important as it is, does not advance as rapidly as it might freedom and opportunity for the American citizens of Puerto Rico."
"I believe that the appropriate status for Puerto Rico is statehood," Ford said.
The President's announcement was issued in a written statement while Ford was skiing.
Later, he was asked why he was proposing statehood rather than leaving the issue to Carter.
"Because I'm President unitl Jan. 20," he said.
"It seems to me it was a very apropos time, so no one could accuse me of any political - not ambitions - but political motives. And I certainly hope it will be well-received there and well-received by the American people."
The President said he decided to recommend statehood because "It seemed to me that the people of Puerto Rican people," he said." "So it Puerto Rican had spoken in the last election, with a candidate for governor, a candidate for the House of Representatives.
Both [candidates] prevailed, and they both were sympathetic [to statehood], which would be a good reflection of the attitude of the Puerto Rican people," he said. "So it seemed to me that we ought to take an initiative . . . in Washington to indicate our full support for statehood for Puerto Rico."
Ford said he had not personally spoken to the incoming governor of Puerto Rico before making his announcement.
Deputy press secretary John Carlson said the White House had notified the chairman of the subcommittess in both houses of Congress who will have responsibility for considering the proposal, and a dozen other prominent members of Congress. The chairmen are Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) and Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash).
Burton said the President's action seemed "well-intentioned," but showed a lack of understanding all to consistent with (his) lack of sensitivity" to the problems of Puerto Rico.
Burton said he feared that the way the President phrased the statement would cause the Puerto Ricans to feel the United States was imposing statehood upon them. He said he feared it might cause a "significant negative reaction in Puerto Rico" which in turn would cause a negative reaction in Congress.
"The President's statement, if well-intentioned, I fear, will be mischievous in impact. That statement should follow rather than precede the expressed will of the Puerto Rican people," Burton said.