MIAMI -- In Puerto Rico, a television advertisement shows a young mother sitting in the sunny back yard of her Florida home, expounding the virtues of U.S. schools and the U.S. job market.
"With statehood, things will be just as good in Puerto Rico as they are here in the United States," she says to the camera in Spanish.
The advertisement, paid for by a political action committee, is just a tiny part of the battle being waged for votes in today's referendum on Puerto Rico's future.
A century after the U.S. Army wrested the Caribbean island from Spain, voters go to the polls to decide whether they want the U.S. territory to become the 51st state.
If that were to happen, Puerto Rico would be the only majority Hispanic state in the nation.
Puerto Rico's pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello called the vote in July in a gamble designed to push the U.S. Congress to address what he claims is an outmoded relationship.
The vote doesn't bind the United States to do anything, although President Clinton has said Congress should honor the results and take up the issue next year.
"I think Congress will address this issue because it's the right thing to do, and also, if it doesn't, it won't play well with Hispanic voters across the United States," said pro-statehood Puerto Rican Sen. Kenneth McClintock.
The ballot is even formulated as a petition that calls on Congress to act.
It offers four alternatives: statehood, independence, the current "commonwealth" status and free association. The last, on a ballot for the first time, would allow Puerto Rico to be independent while retaining some ties to the United States, making it similar to the former U.S. territories of Palau and the Marshall Islands.
A fifth box allows voters to pick "none of the above," a choice the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party is pushing as a way to protest the definition of commonwealth that appears on the ballot.
The party claims that the ballot is biased toward statehood by implying that U.S. citizenship and other federal benefits would not be safe under commonwealth status.
Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917 and made the island a commonwealth in 1952.
During the last nonbinding referendum in Puerto Rico, held in 1993, nearly 49 percent of voters chose to retain commonwealth status, while 46 percent opted for statehood. About 5 percent of voters favored independence.
Most Puerto Ricans believe the push for statehood has picked up steam in recent years, an assertion confirmed by recent newspaper polls that show statehood as the leading choice among voters.
In March, the U.S. House of Representatives approved by one vote a bill requiring the first federally authorized plebiscite allowing Puerto Ricans to vote on their future.
The measure would have given Congress at least 10 years to decide whether to grant statehood to Puerto Rico if a majority of voters had opted for that choice.
But the proposal stalled in the Senate, prompting Rossello to call his own nonbinding plebiscite.
U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, said the movement for statehood won't be over even if statehood fails to win a clear majority.
But he predicted statehood would win.
"I think that would send a strong message to the Congress that we need to move the process along," said Burton, who is in Puerto Rico for the referendum.
If Congress takes up the issue next year, as is expected, statehood will be fought hard by many passionate critics, including Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a Springfield, Va., organization that wants to make English the country's official language.
He said Puerto Rican statehood would saddle U.S. taxpayers with an impoverished, crime-ridden island.
But statehood advocates argue that the island deserves a new, fairer status. They say Puerto Ricans have been drafted and have died under the U.S. flag even though they can't vote for president and have only one nonvoting member in Congress.
Under statehood, Puerto Rico would gain two senators and six representatives in Congress.
Advocates also say statehood would provide an economic boon for Puerto Rico the same way it did for Alaska and Hawaii.
Pub Date: 12/13/98