February 6, 2002

License plate debate heats up in Puerto Rico

                 SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- One of the hottest debates in Puerto Rican
                 politics revolves not around how to manage the economy, or how to fight

                 It's all about a new license plate, and the row has brought new spirit to the
                 ever-present debate about Puerto Rico's uncommon status as a U.S. territory.

                 The new 2002 license plate, draped with images of the Puerto Rican and U.S. flags,
                 commemorates the Caribbean island's 50th anniversary as a "Free Associated State"
                 under U.S. jurisdiction.

                 Pro-independence Sen. Fernando Martin argues the license plate forces drivers to
                 be like "rolling billboards" for the governing party, which supports Puerto Rico's
                 current commonwealth status.

                 Drivers now can choose between two plates for their cars -- the new one
                 celebrating 50 years as a "Free Associated State," or the old one with the slogan
                 "Island of Enchantment." Each costs dlrs 10.

                 Martin said on Tuesday that the new license plates will make some reveal their
                 political views.

                 "It forces citizens who choose the normal license plate to identify themselves as
                 being against the government," he said.

                 The administration of Gov. Sila Calderon has defended the new license plate as a
                 rightful commemoration of the "Free Associated State," which was approved by
                 Puerto Rican voters and took effect July 25, 1952.

                 Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado said whether Puerto Ricans use the license
                 plates "is a very personal decision" that would not affect them in any way.
                 Nevertheless, he asked Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodriguez for a legal opinion.

                 Martin and others believe the plates violate free speech rights. "If it isn't resolved,
                 we are going to go to the courts," Martin said.

                 Calderon, who supports the current commonwealth status, was elected in 2000,
                 replacing Gov. Pedro Rossello, whose New Progressive Party led an unsuccessful
                 drive to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

                 The pro-statehood party's general secretary, Angel Cintron, said the license plate
                 constitutes "a political symbol" and illegal use of public funds.

                 Officials said they spent dlrs 204,000 to produce the first 120,000 new license

                 In nonbinding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998, Puerto Ricans voted to keep
                 the island's current status. The "Free Associated State" was the brainchild of Luis
                 Munoz Marin, Puerto Rico's first elected governor.

                 Before his election in 1948, Washington appointed Puerto Rico's
                 governors. The island has been a U.S. territory since 1898, when U.S. troops
                 invaded and wrested control from the Spanish.

                 Today, although Puerto Rico is among the wealthiest places in Latin America,
                 poverty is more severe than in the mainland United States.

                 Iris Pastrana, a 23-year-old sales representative, said she sees the license plates as
                 an "unnecessary expense" incurred by politicians.

                 "There are other more important things they should resolve," she said.

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.