PRESIDENT FORD PROPOSES statehood for Puerto Rico. Do Puerto Ricans want it? Statehood would subject this underdeveloped former Spanish colony to U.S. income taxes, eliminate the special lures it offers to attract industry, and thrust a new crisis of identity upon its Spanish-language culture.On the evidence, Puerto Ricans prefer the economic and cultural cushions of "commonwealth" status. They chose this unique relationship with the United States in 1952 and reaffirmed it overwhelmingly in a plebiscite in 1967. In accordance with that vote, a U.S.-Puerto Rican commission was set up to improve the commonwealth system. It unanimously recommended in 1975 that the island be granted greater economic and political autonomy within the commonwealth framework. The Ford administration responded with indifference: Republicans have traditionally stood with the statehooders. Puerto Rico, its chronic Caribbean poverty aggravated by recession, has barely stayed afloat.

This is what makes Mr. Ford's statehood proposal so curious. No one begrudges him the right to offer his view on an issue too often left untended at the American end. And Mr. Ford did hearten some Puerto Ricans, including some favoring commonwealth, by becoming the first President ever to say he would support statehood if Puerto Ricans asked. Many Puerto Ricans have doubted that the United States, notwithstanding its spoken respect for self-determination, would accept Puerto Rico into the union. But his proposal comes late and without notice and without full explanation and without the full support of his cabinet and staff and without the expectation of congressional support. It stunned even the new Puerto Rican governor, a gradualist statehooder who campaigned on bread-and-butter issues and promised not to raise the distracting status question in his first term. The governor ignored the Ford proposal in his inaugural address on Sunday. The Ford proposal, moreover, making Washington the initiator of a statehood process, opens the United States to the charge that it is attempting to impose a colonialist solution couter to independence. Though support for independence is minimal, Cuba surely will not be long in levelling the charge.

Why did President Ford move at this time? One informed guess is that he accepted the urgings of the minority in the statehood party that looks to statehood as the way to save Puerto Rico from drifting leftwards in the manner of current-day Jamaica. By this reading of Caribbean political trends, commonwealth status impels Puerto Rico towards an eventual independence in which it could not resist Fidel Castro's wiles. So the answer, by this reasoning, is to protect Puerto Ricans from themselves by pressing upon them something they apparently are not prepared for and are in hurry to accept. We find this a fevered reading and an unsound basis for policy.

Commonwealth still seems plainly to be the Puerto Rican people's choice. It is not sacrosanct but it is workable. It keeps the door open for later statehood if and when Puerto Ricans feel economically and culturally up to it. Meanwhile, we think Jimmy Carter's message to the new Puerto Rican governor strikes the right note. He supports the commonwealth's right to self-determination, he said, "whatever your choice may be."