October 22, 1998
U.S. hurricane aid boosts Puerto Rican statehood advocates


                  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
                  United States.

                  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
                  control here.

                  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 from the
                  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 at
                  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.