The Miami Herald
December 12, 1998
Statehood vs. status quo: Puerto Ricans divided

             By JUAN O. TAMAYO
             Herald Staff Writer

             SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The party that favors U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico
             says Washington treats the island like ``a ghetto. Statehood's main foes say that
             being less than first-class U.S. citizens is good enough for them.

             On the eve of the third plebiscite in 21 years on Puerto Rico's unique relationship
             with the United States, island politicians have been forced into odd rhetorical
             somersaults to make their arguments.

             Pundits say Sunday's vote may be different from the previous two, not just another
             meaningless ``beauty contest among preferences -- keeping the current
             commonwealth status, becoming the 51st state or declaring independence.

             Whatever its outcome, they say, the vote will nudge the U.S. Congress to come to
             grips with a touchy issue it has long ducked.

             ``I'm absolutely certain Congress will have to react to any decision we take, said
             Gov. Pedro Rossello, whose pro-statehood New Progressive Party pushed the
             plebiscite through the island's legislature in July.

             Congress failed to approve two proposals this year that would have mandated a
             status plebiscite that for the first time would have required Congress to act on the

             Sunday's ballot amounts to an appeal for a redress of grievances under the First
             Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all U.S.

             ``We are addressing Congress this time not just in English but in American,
             because this is an American right, said political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia

             The ballot lists two versions of commonwealth, one close to the existing terms and
             one that stresses Puerto Rican autonomy. Statehood, independence and ``none of
             the above round out the choices.

             The vote comes two days after the 100th anniversary of the peace treaty that
             settled the Spanish-American War and gave the United States control of Puerto
             Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.

             Questions surrounding the plebiscite make it unlikely that Congress will rush to
             settle the Puerto Rico issue after Sunday's vote, Passalacqua and other analysts

             ``We are choosing what route we need to start following, Rossello told The
             Herald, saying the full process could take at least four to five years.

             Neck-and-neck race

             Polls show statehood running neck and neck with ``none of the above, the choice
             backed by commonwealth advocates who charge that the New Progressives
             manipulated the choices to favor statehood.

             ``We cannot decide if we want statehood or commonwealth, and we're going to
             ask Congress to decide for us? That's not realistic, said Marcia Castaño, 25, a
             clerk in an Old San Juan tourist shop.

             Proud of their separate Puerto Rican identity, commonwealth advocates defeated
             statehood in two previous plebiscites, 60-39 percent in 1967 and 48-46 percent
             in 1993. Independence got 4 percent to 5 percent of the votes.

             A Republican-ruled Congress is unlikely to throw the statehood gates open to a
             predominantly Hispanic island, political analysts say, especially one traditionally
             close to the Democratic Party.

             ``The American federal system is simply not designed to accept ethnic groups or
             nationalities, said Manuel Rodriguez Orellana, director of U.S. relations for the
             Puerto Rican Independence Party.

             Can't vote for president

             The status debate has raged off and on since the island became a commonwealth
             in 1952.

             Under this arrangement, all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but the 3.8 million
             living on the island cannot vote in presidential elections and have no voting
             representatives in Congress. They do not pay federal income taxes, but receive
             only limited welfare, Medicaid and other benefits. They field their own Olympic
             team, but are subject to the U.S. military draft.

             The two million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, including sizable communities
             in Miami-Dade and Broward communities, have the full range of U.S. rights.

             That amounts to second-class citizenship for Puerto Ricans on the island, Rossello

             ``We are a ghetto lacking basic rights, and that is unacceptable, he said in an
             interview in the governor's seaside mansion, La Fortaleza.

             Poorer than Mississippi

             And while the economy has boomed in recent years, averaging 7 percent growth
             annually, Rossello insists it would have fared even better if potential investors did
             not have to fret about the island's unsettled status.

             Puerto Rico today is richer than any Latin American nation, Rossello said, but
             poorer than the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi, because the commonwealth lacks
             the tools of economic development available to states.

             Worse still, Rossello has argued, the commonwealth status is a result of a
             congressional decision, and what Congress gives, Congress can take away: U.S.
             citizenship, autonomy, welfare benefits, tax breaks.

             Commonwealth supporters say Rossello is using scare tactics to win votes for a
             U.S. ``annexation that would eventually erase all trace of Spanish culture and the
             unique Puerto Rican ``nationality from the island.

             Puerto Rico is not a colony but a sovereign nation voluntarily associated with the
             United States, they argue, and needs only to negotiate a more advantageous
             relationship with Washington.

             ``Statehood will mean more federal bureaucracy and an income tax. What fool
             would invite the Internal Revenue Service into his house? said banker Ronald
             Ojeda, who supports the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party.

             The plebiscite's results are also expected to affect the political future of Rossello,
             54, a Yale-educated pediatric surgeon who has yet to announce whether he will
             seek a third term as governor in 2000.

             He lowered Puerto Rico's dreadful crime rate by sending National Guard troops
             into housing projects to crack down on drug peddlers, improved the public health
             system, gave parents and teachers a bigger voice in running community schools
             and sold off several money-losing state companies.

             But his popularity slipped this year when he privatized the telephone company
             despite a sometimes violent strike by employees that lasted 42 days, and got into
             an ugly fight with San Juan's leading newspaper, El Nuevo Dia.

             Rossello says he's not worried about his political future.

             ``That is totally secondary, he said. ``My focus right now is on this process of
             deciding Puerto Rico's future.


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