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Puerto Ricans ponder options Islanders have five choices, including statehood, as they vote today in plebiscite


SAN JUAN - A hundred years after the United States seized this small, strategically important gateway to the Caribbean, more than 2 million voters here will go to the polls today for the third time to seek an end to their lingering national limbo.

For decades, this former Spanish colony has considered becoming the 51st state, but voters intent on adding a star to the U.S. flag have been unable to edge out those who preferred retaining their status as a U.S. "commonwealth" - a sort of halfway house of Americanness devised in 1952.

Today's non-binding plebiscite - Congress is not required to act on the outcome - might be the first time that those wishing to join the United States win the most votes, statehood supporters and polls suggest.

"It is clear that an overwhelming number of Puerto Ricans are going to reject the current status," said Alcides Ortiz, pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello's chief liaison to Washington. More than 90 percent of the people want some relationship with the United States. The question is, what sort of relationship: Is it statehood or is it commonwealth?"

The island's residents have five options today - continue as a commonwealth; become a U.S. state; choose independence; choose "free association," essentially independence with treaty ties to the United States, similar to the status of the former U.S. territories of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau; or "none of the above."

The earlier plebiscites, when Puerto Ricans chose between commonwealth, statehood and independence, have shown a slackening in appeal for commonwealth. In a 1952 vote on the island's constitution, about 80 percent supported commonwealth. Fifteen years later, support for quasi-colony status fell to 60 percent. In the most recent plebiscite, in 1993, commonwealth received almost 49 percent of the ballots, while 46 percent voted for statehood.

Independence has rarely attracted more than 5 percent of the vote. While Puerto Ricans proudly fly their flag and clamor for self-determination, a vast majority see relations with the United States as necessary for their future.

A poll published Dec. 9 by the San Juan Star, a leading local daily newspaper, indicated that 49 percent of the electorate will vote for statehood, 45 percent will choose the "none of the above" option, 3 percent will vote for free association, 2.4 percent for independence and 0.6 percent for commonwealth. The poll had a 4 percentage point margin of error.

Members of the Popular Democratic Party, the traditional advocates of commonwealth, are boycotting the plebiscite and telling their supporters to vote "none of the above." The ballot, written by members of Rossello's New Progressive Party, defines commonwealth as leaving the island "under the authority of Congress," which could strip Puerto Ricans of their coveted U.S. citizenship at will.

"The plebiscite is an insult to democracy," said PDP Sen. Antonio Fas-Alzamora at a recent rally. "It is designed to split the pro-free associated state vote and to assure victory to statehood. It therefore constitutes a form of electoral fraud." ("Free associated state" is another term for "commonwealth.")

The question of democratic rights is an essential element of the issue. Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917; yet they can't vote for president or Congress - unless they are one of nearly 3 million Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland.

Under commonwealth status, Puerto Rico has blended the trappings of sovereignty with the airs of statehood. While the United States provides up to $10 billion a year in federal aid to Puerto Rico and tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought in wars for the United States, islanders don't pay federal taxes.

U.S. investments have boosted annual per-capita income here to $8,500 - one-third the U.S. average but five times higher than nearby Dominican Republic and the highest in Latin America. Still, 59 percent of 4 million residents of this lush island 1,040 miles southeast of Miami live below the U.S. poverty level, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

"U.S. influence has had an enormous impact on Puerto Rico," said Raul Mariani Franco, a spokesman for ProELA, a small group that supports the free association choice on the ballot. "We have highways, phones, a large amount of financial aid and a democratic process that works. We are the most advanced country in Latin America."

The American influence also helped spark a slew of campaign advertisements on television and radio in recent weeks. One TV ad spoofs statehood opponents, showing a fortune-teller gazing into a crystal ball and foretelling "mucho taxes" under statehood. Another ad also mocks statehood naysayers with snow sprinkling on the University of Puerto Rico's clock tower to the tune of "Silent Night." A narrator promises that, under statehood, snow won't fall on Puerto Rico, and residents won't have to speak English instead of Spanish or replace salsa music with some bawdy American import.

The pro-commonwealth faction turned the tables with an ad saying statehood would mean the end of Puerto Rico's separate Olympic team. After an anonymous hand rips the Puerto Rican logo off a basketball player's jersey, the ad shows a much maligned video clip of Rossello saying in English, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Rossello made the statement in response to criticism of the way he handled this summer's Puerto Rico Telephone Co. strike, the largest work stoppage in the island's history. The comment had nothing to do with the Olympic team.

This plebiscite, unlike those in the past, is occurring in a changing political climate. Congress came close to approving a binding vote earlier this year. The measure, approved by the House of Representatives by a single vote in March, would have required Congress to act on the outcome. But the move died in the Senate.

The feeling that change is inevitable was bolstered by Washington's decision two years ago to phase out tax incentives that helped attract American businesses, mostly pharmaceutical plants. Furthermore, Republicans, long opposed to statehood on the assumption it would usher in an all-Democratic Congressional delegation, amended their political platform in 1996 to support Puerto Rico's entry as a state.

However, the vote must be convincing. A plurality is unlikely to impress Congress. Many members have said they would like to see at least a solid majority, if not two-thirds voting in support of statehood, before they take up the issue.

An estimated 73 percent of 2.2 million registered voters are expected to cast ballots today, despite the recent pummeling by Hurricane Georges. The recovering island, speckled with bright blue government-issued tarps patching up the roofs swept away by the September storm, would not have bounced back as it has without the billions of dollars in U.S. emergency aid. And that, some say, is reason enough to vote for statehood.

"I think it's obvious, from many factors, that there will be a plurality for statehood," said Juan Garcia Passalacqua, a political analyst in Puerto Rico. "This real question now is, what is Congress going to do. Do they want to admit a Hispanic state as the 51st state?"

David Abel is a freelance writer who lives in Puerto Rico.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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