SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- When Hurricane Georges demolished
thousands of Puerto Rican homes, it also handed supporters of statehood a
valuable gift: a chance to prove that it pays handsomely to be part of the
The federal government's mighty relief effort -- at $1.5 billion and counting
-- has been caught up in a political storm, with critics accusing Gov. Pedro
Rossello of exploiting it to boost the statehood side in an upcoming vote on
the island's status.
Statehood supporters, meanwhile, dismissed opposition calls that the Dec.
13 vote be put off until the island recovers.
"All relief work is politics," said James Lee Witt, the head of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, when he visited the island last week.
The Sept. 21 hurricane -- considered the worst to hit Puerto Rico in 70
years -- came as the island is preparing for a referendum on whether to
continue its current status or opt for statehood or independence.
The United States, which has controlled Puerto Rico since driving out the
Spanish a century ago, is not bound by the vote but President Clinton has
said Congress should honor the result. However, the current lawmaking
body appears unlikely to approve of expanding the union.
The last referendum, in 1993, was narrowly won by supporters of the
current "commonwealth" status, whereby Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens
with limited rights and duties. Only a tiny minority supports independence.
Statehood supporters deride commonwealth as colonial status, noting that
islanders cannot vote for president or for Congress, which has ultimate
Commonwealth supporters fear statehood would dilute their Hispanic culture
and make English the dominant language.
Last week, Witt detailed FEMA accomplishments that include:
-- Raising $1.5 billion from the government, making this the organization's
biggest storm-relief project ever.
-- Launching a five-year project to build 50,000 homes.
-- Registering and paying more victims more quickly than ever.
In addition, the U.S. military launched an ambitious relief effort, transporting
thousands of tons of cots, medicines, ice, water and generators to aid
Several hundred Marines from Camp Lejuene, N.C., installed temporary
bridges, power-generating stations and water purification centers. Heavy-lift
helicopters delivered the aid to remote mountain towns.
The aid stood in sharp contrast to the situation in neighboring countries.
The English-language San Juan Star daily noted that "things are sharply
different" in the devastated Dominican Republic and Haiti, where "they do
not have the financial and expert support from Washington that Puerto Rico
Georges killed some 500 people in those two countries -- compared to
three in Puerto Rico -- and their governments have been unable to cope with
hundreds of thousands of homeless.
"The governor's strategists believe they will reap a political windfall
outpouring of federal aid," wrote columnist Bob Becker in the Star. "The
message will be crystal clear... statehood assures the strong assistance of the
United States in times of natural catastrophe."
A group led by opposition legislator Roberto Cruz Rodriguez has demanded
an investigation of Rossello's handling of aid, saying he illegally withheld
money from the opposition-controlled town of Ponce until he could arrive
and distribute it himself.
"(That's) an abuse that borders on plain impudence," Cruz Rodriguez
Critics say Rossello allies have also distributed pro-statehood literature
events where he has handed out relief checks.
But, most damning in the eyes of many in this music-mad society, such
events have featured louspeakers blaring "The Cup Of Life," a hit song that
has become associated with the governor's campaign.
"It's a great way to bring comfort to people, to make them cheerful,"
countered Rossello's chief of staff, Angel Morey.
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.