December 12, 1998
Puerto Rico gov. sees statehood victory, despite polls

                  SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Dec 12 (Reuters) -- Gov. Pedro Rossello
                  expects Puerto Ricans to vote on Sunday to end their commonwealth
                  status in spite of polls saying they are split over urging Congress to turn their
                  homeland into a U.S. state.

                  "There are polls and there are polls," Rossello told Reuters in an interview on
                  Saturday. "Most of them are not in agreement or consistent."

                  Rossello, an ardent advocate of Puerto Rican statehood, pushed hard to
                  have the U.S. Caribbean island territory hold its third plebiscite on its
                  relationship with the United States this year-- the 100th it has been a U.S.

                  "I'm confident that statehood would maintain the majority of votes.... This is
                  a historical movement. It has been going on since the establishment of the
                  commonwealth," he said.

                  When Puerto Rico received its current commonwealth status in 1950, about
                  80 percent of Puerto Ricans supported that status, a figure that declined
                  during two referendums on the island's status held since.

                  In the last status plebiscite, in 1993, 48 percent of voters chose
                  commonwealth status, 46 percent said they supported statehood and most
                  of the rest favoured independence.

                  "I think that the process has continued. This is something where... statehood
                  is now the majority option for the first time," Rossello said.

                  A poll released Saturday conducted for the San Juan Star newspaper found
                  that 47.6 percent of Puerto Ricans favoured statehood. Among the four
                  other options on Sunday's ballot, 47 percent picked "none of the above," the
                  one favoured as a protest vote by backers of retaining commonwealth

                  On Sunday, Puerto Ricans will choose whether the Caribbean island of 3.8
                  million people should become a U.S. state, remain a U.S. commonwealth,
                  seek independence or begin a "free association," which is
                  quasi-independence with more power for the government and ties to the
                  United States. They can also vote "none of the above."

                  About 995 miles (1,600 kms) southeast of Miami, Puerto Rico has been a
                  U.S. possession since Spain ceded it to the United States when it signed the
                  Treaty of Paris on Dec. 10, 1898, ending the Spanish-American War.

                  The opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP) is urging supporters to
                  vote "none of the above." The PDP maintains that remaining a
                  commonwealth will keep Puerto Rico part of the United States without
                  risking its language and national identity, which they fear from statehood.

                  "We are going to vote for the fifth column (none of the above) because we
                  are Puerto Ricans; we were born Puerto Ricans and we want to die Puerto
                  Ricans," Sila Calderon, the mayor of San Juan and one of the most popular
                  politicians in the PDP, said during her party's campaign closing rally on
                  Friday night.

                  Rossello, who leads the New Progressive Party, said the United States
                  would accept a Spanish-speaking state, stressing that his administration
                  promotes bilingual education. "This is Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens. And
                  the question is whether because they are Spanish-speaking, you can
                  discriminate, as far as their citizenship rights," he said.

                  An estimated 25 percent of Puerto Ricans speak English well.

                  Under commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and receive
                  many federal benefits. But they do not pay federal income taxes or vote in
                  national elections.

                  Analysts have said the statehood option would need an overwhelming
                  majority to win over a balky U.S. population, resistant to the idea of a
                  Spanish-speaking U.S. state with a per capita income of about $8,000, less
                  than a third of the average U.S. level of $25,660.

                  Puerto Rico obtains an estimated $10 billion per year in various forms of
                  U.S. aid, according to government officials.

                  "If Puerto Rico votes less than half, or only 51 or 52 percent in favour of
                  statehood, the United States government is not going to let Puerto Rico
                  become a state," said Thomas Boswell, professor of geography in the
                  School of International Studies at the University of Miami.

                  "The way people will argue here is they will ask, 'Why do we want to take
                  on a country that a lot of the people don't want to become part of us. And
                  why do we want to take the economic burden?"' he said.

                  If voters opt for statehood on Sunday, Puerto Rico would treat the vote as a
                  petition to Congress to develop a plan for the island to become the 51st
                  state. Once passed, that plan would be submitted to the people of Puerto
                  Rico for a vote.

                  Polls will open at 7 a.m. EST (1200 GMT) and close at 2 p.m. EST (1900
                  GMT). Puerto Rico has 2.2 million registered voters. About 80 percent are
                  expected to vote.

                  The new Star poll was conducted on Thursday and on Friday. Compared to
                  a survey conducted Dec. 1-7, it showed a 1.4 percent decrease in support
                  for statehood and a 2 percent increase for "none of the above." Both
                  changes were within the new poll's 4 percent margin of error.

                    Copyright 1998 Reuters.