The Miami Herald
December 14, 1998
For third time, Puerto Rico rejects becoming 51st state

             JUAN O. TAMAYO
             Herald Staff Writer

             SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- In an ambiguous battle over Puerto Rico's
             relationship with the United States, opponents of statehood Sunday won a crucial
             plebiscite 100 years after U.S. troops occupied the island.

             The outcome of the third such vote since 1967 was a blow to pro-statehood Gov.
             Pedro Rossello, whose New Progressive Party forced the plebiscite through the
             island's legislature despite complaints of deceit.

             But Rossello painted the results as a victory of sorts for statehood and predicted
             the tally would still nudge the U.S. Congress to try to resolve the long and thorny
             issue of Puerto Rico's status.

             Official returns gave statehood 46.5 percent of the vote and 2.8 percent for all
             three other detailed options on the ballot -- the current commonwealth status, a
             modified commonwealth, and independence.

             But 50.2 percent of the voters checked ``none of the above, the option backed by
             the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP) amid complaints that the
             NPP majority in the legislature manipulated the phrasing of the choices in
             statehood's favor.

             ``The people have spoken and said that they do not want to be annexed by the
             United States . . . that we want our culture, our language and our identity, said
             PDP official Antonio Colorado.

             ``We are what we are, said Angel Martinez, a 45-year-old maintenance worker,
             after voting in the Old San Juan neighborhood of Puerta de la Tierra. ``If we're
             happy with what and who we are, why should I want change?

             Reflecting the importance of the plebiscite, the turnout of about 71 percent among
             2.2 million registered voters was higher than in past gubernatorial elections,
             political analyst Aida Montilla said.

             The vote appeared split largely down class lines, with upper class neighborhoods
             favoring statehood while lower class and rural areas favored the ``none of the
             above option.

             Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War in 1898,
             and about one-quarter of the people speak English fluently. It became a
             commonwealth through an act of Congress in 1952.

             Under that arrangement, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but the 3.8 million living
             here cannot vote in presidential elections and have no voting representatives in
             Congress. They don't pay federal taxes, but receive reduced welfare and other
             federal benefits. The two million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have the
             same rights as all other U.S. citizens.

             Commonwealth advocates defeated statehood in both previous plebiscites, by a
             60-39 margin in 1967 and a 48-46 margin in 1993. Independence has traditionally
             won 4-5 percent of the votes.

             As early results were announced, PDP and NPP leaders rushed to put their own
             spin on the complex tallies.

             San Juan Mayor Sila Maria Calderon, touted as the PDP candidate in the
             gubernatorial elections set for the year 2000, said the vote meant the death of
             statehood and a strong support for the current commonwealth.

             ``Commonwealth, the commonwealth we have and not the commonwealth that the
             governor put on that ballot, won this vote. The NPP and the governor lost their
             attempt to manipulate this vote, she told a San Juan radio station.

             Recalling the bitter strike this summer over Rossello's privatization of the island's
             telephone company, commonwealth supporter Janet Almodovar, 27, said the
             governor ``wants to sell Puerto Rico like he sold the Telefonica.

             ``I recognize that a significant number of people voted [for none of the above] as a
             protest against me personally, or against my administration . . . or against the
             telephone company, Rossello told a rally of supporters after the polls closed.

             But NPP leaders seized on their majority among the four identified options to claim
             victory and declare a defeat for the current commonwealth status.

             ``Today the people spoke and said they want a change, an upbeat-looking
             Rossello told the rally. ``Their first message is that commonwealth is dead. . . . The
             second message is that between the alternatives of change, statehood won.

             ``We won the votes on the immense majority of those who spoke clearly, said
             former Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo, now Puerto Rico's nonvoting envoy to
             Washington. ``How many options were there? Just four. Not five.

             NPP Sen. Kenneth McKlintock said the outcome was ``subject to interpretation,
             and predicted that Congress would now have to consider the four active choices
             on the ballot, not the ``none of the above column.

             Congress this summer failed to approve two proposals that would have mandated
             a status plebiscite in Puerto Rico and that for the first time required the lawmakers
             to act on the results.

             Rossello, the NPP and a growing number of politicians in Washington have been
             arguing that Congress has a unilateral duty to move on the status question -- in
             effect, if Puerto Ricans are too internally divided to clarify their status, to help them
             make the decision.

             Rossello and the NPP focused their pro-statehood campaigns on arguments that
             Puerto Ricans are second-class U.S. citizens and that the odd commonwealth
             status had limited the island's economic growth. Puerto Rico is poorer than the
             poorest U.S. state, Mississippi.

             ``I take a look at the economy that they have in the United States, and I want that,
             too, said Angel Quiles, a 24-year-old dock worker, before entering a school to
             vote in Sunday's plebiscite.

             His father, Miguel, a state policeman who served two tours in Vietnam with the
             U.S. Army, said he was voting for statehood because it will bring him the same
             level of veteran's benefits as in the mainland.

             ``I love America. I want statehood. I want equal treatment. I want everything the
             Americans have. I even want snow, joked the elder Quiles as a warm tropical
             breeze swept in from the the nearby Morro Castle.

             If Sunday's results are anything to go by, statehood appears as unlikely as snow
             for Puerto Rico.


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