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
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
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
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
the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP) amid complaints that the
NPP majority in the legislature manipulated the phrasing of the choices in
``The people have spoken and said that they do not want to be annexed by
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
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
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War in
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
for Puerto Rico.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald