July 19, 1998
100th anniversary of U.S. rule leaves Puerto Rico divided, confused

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Emilio Figueroa remembers well the day Eisenhower died. He cried when Nixon resigned. He went to college in Cincinnati. He's worked in Florida, Louisiana and Hawaii. He adored Sinatra.

Like his 3.8 million island compatriots, he's a citizen of the United States.

Yet the 36-year-old owner of the Parrot Club bistro in San Juan is not entirely American -- not in his eyes, at least.

"I'm Puerto Rican!" he says simply, caressing a Monte Cristo cigar. "We have a lot of heart, a lot of fight, a lot of tenacity!"

Emilio's hearty patriotism is shared by all here -- from rural poor who depend on Washington's aid to a growing middle class that has embraced consumer culture with a startling vengeance to intellectuals who bemoan the megamalls and other signs of Americanization.

Never an independent nation

The resilience of national sentiment is striking, considering Puerto Rico has never been an independent nation. It is probably the key obstacle to Gov. Pedro Rossello's campaign to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

Columbus claimed the island, inhabited by Taino Indians who soon were decimated, for Spain in 1493.

On July 25, 1898, during the Spanish-American war, the United States invaded. U.S. troops were welcomed by many islanders, most descendants of Spanish colonists and African slaves who expected the Americans to give them independence.

Instead, Puerto Rico became the U.S. gateway to the Caribbean -- a strategic gem, a sometime economic asset, and a bit of an embarrassment since colonies went out of style.

A century later, debate rages over the island's arguably subservient relationship with the United States, made more irksome by the master's seeming ambivalence.

Polls -- and a non-binding 1993 referendum -- indicate only about one in 20 Puerto Ricans actually wants independence. Most people credit the United States for giving them a living standard rarely seen in Latin America.

But ask whether they are Americans or Puerto Ricans, and the ratio turns on its head.

Should the island join the Union?

"It is accepted by the great majority here that Puerto Rico is a nation," said Ricardo Alegria, head of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. "The great majority want to maintain our own culture, literature, language."

That raises a question as fundamental to the United States as to Puerto Rico: Can, and should, a proud, distinct and Spanish-speaking nation join the union?

Uncomfortable as a colonizer, the United States granted Puerto Ricans citizenship in 1917 -- so they can travel freely to the U.S. mainland, where some 2 million now live.

Under a peculiar "commonwealth" arrangement agreed in 1952, Puerto Ricans pay Social Security taxes but no federal income tax, and receive federal aid of up to $10 billion a year. They cannot vote for U.S. president on the island -- but can if they live on the mainland. They have one nonvoting delegate in Congress.

Puerto Ricans are eligible for the military draft, and tens of thousands have fought for the United States.

The United States gets naval and military bases at a maritime crossroads and a convenient market. Puerto Rico gets some symbols of sovereignty, like its own Olympic team and a much-revered flag.

Tax incentives phased out

But there is a growing feeling that change is inevitable. This was bolstered by Washington's decision two years ago to phase out tax incentives that helped attract American business operations, especially pharmaceutical plants.

The U.S. businesses pushed annual per capita income to $8,000 -- one-third the U.S. average but five times higher than in nearby Dominican Republic.

Development also brought income gaps and one of the highest murder and drug abuse rates in the United States and its territories.

In some ways, Puerto Rico looks American, as in a generous scale out of synch with the reality of a crowded island. Gas stations luxuriate over three-acre (1.2-hectare) plots; sports utility vehicles and spacious U.S. cars, often bearing a single driver, clog the web of "autopistas."

'Spanglish' is everywhere

The exquisite Spanish colonial homes of Old San Juan, in pastel apricot, green and blue, share streets with the likes of Hooters, McDonald's and the Hard Rock Cafe.

Both Spanish and English are official languages. Though "Spanglish" is everywhere -- such as in the popular exclamation "Que nice!" -- only 1 in 4 or 5 Puerto Ricans speak English well. Some fear statehood could mean official imposition of English only, despite the failure of an earlier effort to teach English in schools.

Radio plays mostly salsa, merengue and Spanish-language rock. The street tempo, like the dances and the music that blares from bars, cars, sidewalk cafes and apartment windows, is decidedly Latin.

Most towns have a patron saint whose annual "day" is a tremendous bash. San Juan's was June 23. Thousands -- young fathers with infants, teen-agers waving Coors Lite and a few spry retirees -- performed the traditional three backward walks into the Atlantic at midnight for good luck.

Gov. Rossello sees no contradiction between the dominant local culture and statehood. "Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian language were put up as an obstacle to being admitted as a state of the union," he says.

Commonwealth has made Puerto Rico a "disenfranchised ghetto" in his view.

"I have three sons. One of them is a resident of Massachusetts. He has all the rights just because he lives there. His two brothers (in Puerto Rico) don't have the same rights, and I don't think that's appropriate," the governor said in an interview.

Historian Luis Agrait likes commonwealth just fine.

"There's nothing in history that tells me that one has to be either a state or an independent nation," he said.

Statehood means "you could end up with an American Quebec," he warned, referring to the restive French-speaking Canadian province. Forcing the issue could bring violence, he added.

Issue heating up

For now, there is little hatred between Puerto Ricans who disagree -- but the status dispute is gradually seeping into other issues and becoming more strident.

When Rossello announced the sale of Puerto Rico Telephone Co. to GTE in June, workers went on strike and were swiftly joined by nationalists who charged he chose a U.S. firm to boost his statehood agenda. Statehooders, meanwhile, fretted the unrest would scare mainlanders away from their cause.

Violence accompanied the creation of commonwealth, too. In 1950, two Puerto Rican radicals tried to assassinate President Truman, and four years later a band of four opened fire on the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five lawmakers.

In that same chamber this March, the House approved -- by a single vote -- a measure allowing a Puerto Rican referendum that could set the island on the road to statehood. The bill's supporters hope for a Senate vote before year's end.

In the 1993 referendum, Puerto Ricans voted for commonwealth over statehood by 49 percent to 46 percent.

Polls say the narrow split persists -- but Rossello's New Progressive Party is pushing hard. Often his supporters sell statehood as a treasure chest of more federal aid.

For Ruben Berrios Martinez, head of the Puerto Rico Independence Party, such talk is a national indignity.

Statehood "would merely be another form of dependence and subordination," he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

But his movement, which got only about 5 percent in the 1993 referendum, struggles.

Only a few hundred faithful showed up at a recent "independentista" rally marking the 100 years since the American bombardment of San Juan signaled the impending takeover.

Elderly men defiantly wrapped the Puerto Rican flag -- five red-and-white stripes and a single star in a triangle -- around their heads and then marched off down the old town's cobblestone lanes.

They were alone.

Most islanders were inside, ecstatically cheering a different national symbol: Joyce Giraud, pride of the mountain village of Aguas Buenas, who was competing in the Miss Universe pageant.