By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Herald Staff Writer
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The party that favors U.S. statehood for Puerto
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
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
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
grips with a touchy issue it has long ducked.
``I'm absolutely certain Congress will have to react to any decision we
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
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
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
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
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
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
Herald, saying the full process could take at least four to five years.
Polls show statehood running neck and neck with ``none of the above, the
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
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
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
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
Under this arrangement, all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but the 3.8
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
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,
``We are a ghetto lacking basic rights, and that is unacceptable, he said
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
deciding Puerto Rico's future.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald