Carlos Romero Barcelo was sworn in today as governor of Puerto Rico, promising to attack economic problems but ignoring the one issue that was on everyone's mind: is Puerto Rico finally headed for statehood?

The situation is unclear, at best. On Friday President Ford caught Puerto Ricans by surprise when he announced that, as one of his last official acts, he will recommend that Congress approve legislation to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

But today, in remarks read by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Carla A. Hills, the President did not mention statehood. His remarks simply wished Romero and Puerto Rico well.

President-elect Jimmy Carter sent a message supporting Puerto Rico's "right to political self-determination . . . whatever . . . your choice may be." Carter has said that Puerto Rico, not Washington should take the initiative in deciding the commonwealth's future relationship with the United States.

This position is identical to that of Romero, who is committed personally and politically to making Puerto Rico a state - but not necessarily immediately. His position has been that a Puerto Rican plebiscite should come before congressional action.

The problem for Puerto Ricans is that, with Ford's call for statehood now, the indefinite future seems suddenly to become not so distant. People here from all walks of life have begun a period of soul-searching: watching developments that currently appear beyond their control and saving very little.

The new governor seemed to be reacting in much the same way: watching and listening, but saying little - at least in public.

Romero took his oath of office during a simple, two-hour ceremony this morning in front of the Capitol in Old San Juan. With thousands of his prostatehood supporters in front of him and an impressive array of dignitaries at his side, he read an inaugural address that promised an immediate attack on "social and economic injustice."

"Poverty is demoralizing not only to the poor themselves, but also to the fabric of the society that tolerates its existence," Romero said, studiously avoiding even a passing reference to the issue that, more than any other, has been at the heart of Puerto Roco's political life since the turn of the century: the island's ultimate status, its place in the world.

Since 1899, when the United States wrested control of Puerto Rico from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War, the island has passed through a series of relationships with the United States.

For the past 25 years it has been a commonwealth, which means, among other things, that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, serve in the armed forces and can freely emigrate to the mainland. But they do not vote in presidential elections, do not have a voting representative in Congress, are subject to federal laws but do not have to pay federal income taxes.

The island's political parties are organized around the status question: Romero's New Progressive Party is pro-statehood; the outgoing governor, Rafael Hernandez-Colon, leads the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. There are two pro-independence parties, which have never captured more than a small percentage of the vote in past electrons.

With at least 20 per cent of the island's work force unemployed as well as a drop in tourism and other serious economic problems, Puerto Ricans had, until last week, put their political-status debate on the back burner. Romero said during his campaign that the island's political status was not at stake and that, if elected, he would do nothing during his four-year term to force a decision on statehood.

The suddenly, and apparently without Romero's knowledge, Ford made his call for statehood.

The announcement embarrassed Romero. Before today's ceremony, Romero told the Associated Press that he decided to stick with the inaugural address he had written earlier last week. Romero wanted more time to study the situation, both here among his constituents and in Washington among the nation's elected representatives, informed sources said.

Carter's statements that Puerto Rico should be allowed to determine its status when it chooses to do so tended to reassure Puerto Ricans that statehood will not be forced on them. Even pro-statehood party members interviewed over the weekend often expressed the view that the Ford statement was ill-considered and that Puerto Rico needs time before it is ready to assume its place as a state.

That sentiment was expressed by Romero's wife, Kate, who told a reporter that Ford's proposal had been ill-timed, according to United Press International.

Asked if he agreed with his wife, the new governor replied:

"I can't start discussing what my wife may have said. If I started supporting or contradicting what she says, people would think she's the one who's running the government."

The reaction here to the President's announcement was generally reserved. There were no demonstrations. On Saturday night San Juan seemed little different from what it always is: a bustling, sometimes charming, sometimes garish city filled with people having a good time - walking, driving, clogging the narrow streets with automobiles and themselves.

The gamblers who frequent the casinos in the big hotels along Ashford Avenue in the Condado section of San Juan were out in force. The prostitutes were in front of the hotels as always, looking for business. The pharmacies, clothing shops, curio stores and ice cream parlors near the hotels were filled.

In Old San Juan, a beautiful colonial city dating from the 16th century, with a commanding view of the Atlantic, the restaurants, clubs and bars also were filled. No one was talking about statehood, commonwealth or independence. Nobody seemed to be very concerned about Ford's statement.

But that was a surface impression. Random interviews with Puerto Ricans working or walking along Ashford Avenue and with others who attended the swearing-in ceremony today indicated that a period of quiet reflection had begun - a period when the Puerto Rican people will form their opinions about their future relationship with the United States in light of the changed circumstances.

For even if Congress does nothing with Friday's proposal. Ford is thought to be the first American President to openly advocate statehood for Puerto Rico. That was the significant thing and people here generally expressed the view that the issue is going to be settled by referendum sooner than had been anticiapte.

"Some say it will not be decided for 10 or 15 years," said Juan Soto Perez, 64, a retired shopkeeper who drives a cab part-time. "Some say a referendum is coming very soon. I think it's coming soon."

Will he vote for statehood? "Yes, I like it," he said.

Rafael Battistini Quinones, a pharmacist who owns a drugstore on Ashford Avenue, said he has always favored statehood and thinks that if a plebiscite were held now, a majority of Puerto Ricans would vote to become the 51st state rather than retain commonwealth status.

"But I think we should wait" to hold the plebiscite, he said, "to teach the people in the country the advantages of statehood."

What are the advantages? "Economically, we'll have more advantages," he said." Puerto Rico, it's too small and too poor. We'll be more secure belonging to the States."

Even if Puerto Rico was endowed with abundant natural resorces and wealth, he said, he would never vote for independence. "We are afraid of communism," he said. "We do not want communism and if we were to be independent, the Communists would enter immediately."