SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- In a cautious vote favoring the preservation of Puerto Rican heritage and protesting the wording on the ballot, Puerto Ricans voted yesterday against the option of becoming a state for the third time since the island became a commonwealth.
As millions of paper ballots were counted by hand in schools across Puerto Rico, preliminary tallies indicated that the island's residents had chosen "none of the above" over statehood. With 100 percent of the vote counted, "none of the above" led over statehood by 50 to 47 percent.
Other options, including independence, collectively received 3 percent of the vote.
The vote was a resounding defeat for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party of Gov. Pedro Rossello, who had called the vote in August, urging Puerto Ricans to vote for statehood so they could have a voice in federal politics and secure their economic future on an island where the poverty rate is above 60 percent. Rossello had hoped the results would persuade the U.S. Congress to draw up a plan for a transition to statehood.
The pro-statehood party argued that Puerto Ricans could hold equal rights while maintaining their unique identity. But the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party successfully played on fears that the island's 3.8 million Puerto Ricans would give up their Spanish language and Latin American cultural heritage if Puerto Rico became a state.
Party leaders had urged supporters to vote for "none of the above" because they felt the changes they wanted were not reflected in the options on the ballot.
The pro-commonwealth forces favor the current arrangement, but with changes that would give Puerto Ricans the power to vote on federal policy regarding their island.
Although conceding that statehood failed to get more votes than "none of the above," Rossello said yesterday that the vote still indicated overwhelming support for his party's position.
"Today you said you wanted a change," Rossello told a couple of thousand people who gathered last night outside the headquarters of the New Progressive Party, a tall building painted bright blue with a giant white star on each side. "Between the options for change for Puerto Rico, statehood won. There is one road, and that is to become the 51st state."
But over at the Popular Democratic Party headquarters, where thousands had also gathered, the leadership claimed a clear victory for the commonwealth.
"What you said today is that the people have self-respect," said party president Anibal Acevedo Vila to a crowd waving red-and-white flags. "This has reaffirmed our commonwealth."
Under the current commonwealth arrangement, Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens but those who live on the island cannot bTC vote for president or elect voting representatives to Congress. They do not pay federal taxes. The poor, elderly and disabled receive federal welfare and Social Security benefits, but the payments are substantially less than those in the states.
If Puerto Rico became a state, federal benefits would rise, and the island would have two senators and six members of the House of Representatives. There is now one nonvoting Puerto Rican representative in Congress.
With yesterday's vote, the debate continues over political status -- the central focus of Puerto Rican politics since the United States took control 100 years ago during the Spanish-American War.
Though statehood did not get a majority of the votes, Rossello still plans to present the referendum results in Washington, in the hope that Congress will consider legislation calling for another vote.
Pub Date: 12/14/98