The Miami Herald
May 6, 1999

Puerto Ricans say Congress must take lead on territory's future

WASHINGTON -- (AP) -- Puerto Rican leaders faulted Congress Thursday for
failing to lay out a road map for the territory's future. Senators shot back that
some Puerto Ricans are seeking a ``free lunch'' status giving them the benefits
but not the responsibilities of federal union.

In a packed hearing of the Senate Energy Committee, Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro
Rossello said a plebiscite last December on Puerto Rico's future proved
inconclusive in part because Congress has yet to define the options -- from
statehood to independence -- that are available.

``After 100 years of waiting, we would expect Congress to act on its
responsibilities,'' said Rossello, who supports statehood.

Last year the House passed, by a single vote, a bill authorizing a Puerto Rico
statehood referendum. When the Senate failed to move on the legislation, the
island went ahead with its own plebiscite in which 46 percent supported
statehood but a majority 50.3 percent cast ballots for a ``none of the above''
option. The rest voted for independence or free association.

Under the current commonwealth arrangement, the 3.8 million residents of Puerto
Rico are U.S. citizens and the island receives more than $10 billion a year in
federal funds. Puerto Ricans, however, pay no federal taxes and cannot vote for

Supporters of an enhanced commonwealth status under which Puerto Ricans
would receive more political and economic independence claimed that most of the
``none of the above'' voters backed their position, which was not on the ballot.
``The people of Puerto Rico were unambiguous in their rejection of statehood,''
said Anibal Acevedo Vila, president of the Popular Democratic Party.

Others said the protest vote was associated more with other frustrations with the
system. Ruben Berrios Martinez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence
Party, said that for the past decade ``Congress has repeatedly failed to authorize
a federally sponsored referendum, even when all Puerto Rican political parties
have unanimously endorsed such a petition.''

Prospects for congressional action this year are slim, with little enthusiasm about
promoting statehood for an island that is Spanish-speaking, poorer than the other
50 states and -- to the disadvantage of Republicans -- would probably send
Democrats to Congress.

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., in a heated exchange with Rossello, complained
that ``you constantly come here and shift the blame to the Congress. ... I'm
getting a little impatient with it always being our responsibility.''

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also grilled Acevedo Vila about the commonwealth
option, demanding that his party put in writing its stance on such issues as
allowing Puerto Rico to enter trade agreements with other countries or override
acts of Congress.

Those who would have Puerto Ricans keep their U.S. citizenship and income
tax-free access to federal funding while giving them economic sovereignty are
offering a ``false choice because there are no free lunches,'' she said.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., called it the ``free beer and barbecue option.''

The Puerto Rican speakers also used the hearing to protest an incident last
month where one man was killed and four injured during U.S. Navy live
ammunition firing on the island of Vieques.