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by Iván Román

July 3, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- It was a historic moment: the first time a U.S. president sat down with Puerto Rican leaders of all ideologies in the White House to talk about how to solve the island`s 102-year-old political-status problem.

But now that Wednesday`s "summit" on status is over, everyone`s back in Puerto Rico. In the midst of a campaign laced with bitterness over the U.S. Navy`s presence on Vieques, will it actually mean anything?

The presidents of the three Puerto Rican political parties are optimistic. But the value of the unprecedented meeting called by President Clinton is very much in dispute here. Only one of four invited congressmen showed up, and it was clear that Congress, which has authority over Puerto Rico, would not act this year.

White House officials say that after hearing from Puerto Rican leaders, Clinton plans to propose defining all status options by the end of the year. This would be an important step toward a solution that could be implemented in the next administration.

"To know if it`s fruitful, we`ll have to see what the president does," said Ruben Berrios, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and a gubernatorial candidate. "I`m not willing to judge people by what they say, but rather by what they do."

When it comes to Puerto Rico`s political status, Congress has done little since the United States took over the island as booty in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The commonwealth status approved by Congress and ratified by Puerto Ricans in 1952 emerged once Washington made it clear then that independence or statehood were out of the question.

For many, the commonwealth status, which grants Puerto Rico a degree of autonomy but places the island under the U.S. Constitution`s territorial clause, makes it just a dressed-up colony. The island`s 3.8 million people are U.S. citizens and pay no federal taxes but have no say in electing a president or in Congress.

Federal aid last year increased to about $12 billion, helping fuel one of Latin America`s highest living standards. But Puerto Rico also had proportionately more military installations than any other part of the United States, and, thanks to federal tax loopholes and a captive economy, it was the world`s No. 1 source of profit for U.S. companies for decades.

Repeated attempts to change the status quo have failed in Congress and at the polls.

Now the White House and some local officials are hoping to bypass that problem by coming up with a way everyone can detail, negotiate and mold these definitions, away from the turmoil of election campaigns or congressional deal making. Gov. Pedro Rossello, who wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, suggested an Executive Branch Task Force to clarify the status options before Election Day on Nov. 7.

"The president was clear that he considered this his responsibility, and this was the appropriate time to do it," Rossello said.

Rossello has been ready to deal with this for years. Four years before he took office in 1993, Puerto Rico had already been through the "Puerto Rico Self Determination Act," which after months of discussion died in a Senate committee. The island leaders` definitions for statehood, independence and enhanced commonwealth suffered in Congress. Lawmakers resisted accepting a state where schools taught in Spanish, balked at paying more to equalize federal benefits and rejected changes to the commonwealth it thought unconstitutional.

More importantly, Congress refused to commit beforehand to enacting whichever status formula won a plebiscite. Concerns that most Puerto Ricans would be Democrats led to the failure of another referendum bill in 1991.

When Rossello came into office, he ignored Congress and held a plebiscite in November 1993, hoping to pressure Washington to act. But commonwealth supporters won by a slim margin.

When another attempt at a congressionally sanctioned referendum, known as the Young Bill, passed by just one vote in the House but was shelved in the Senate, a frustrated Rossello held another plebiscite in December 1998.

Those supporting commonwealth and other formulas who initially wanted to boycott the plebiscite ended up beating statehood -- 50 percent voting for "none of the above" and 46 percent for statehood.

Last year, Rossello appealed to the United Nations, causing a big stir when he said he would accept help from Cuba if necessary to achieve self-determination for Puerto Rico. He ended up finding an ally at the White House, which must report to the U.N.`s Decolonization Committee by the end of the year on what measures it has taken to decolonize Puerto Rico.

For political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, reporting to the United Nations was a major catalyst for last week`s meeting. He called it an "absolute success" because it will produce a new presidential proclamation specifying what the four status formulas consist of -- independence, an enhanced commonwealth, statehood and what is known here as an "associated republic" -- and how the winning formula will be chosen. It would substitute former President Carter`s proclamation in 1978 that later became law, which opened the door to "alternative futures" for Puerto Rico.

"Presidential proclamations succeed and survive any presidency," Garcia Passalacqua said.

But others aren`t so convinced. Noel Colon Martinez, a former president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, said a meeting called by Clinton six months before leaving office, with virtually no congressional representation, was suspect. Puerto Rico has only one nonvoting representative in Congress, Carlos Romero Barcelo. He joined the Puerto Rican leaders at the White House meeting.

Since last year, critics have claimed Clinton`s attention to the status problem was payback for Rossello`s accepting his controversial directives that let the Navy use Vieques` target range another three years. Rossello also runs Vice President Al Gore`s presidential campaign in Puerto Rico, and it is rumored that he would have a place in a Gore administration.

"It`s basically due to Clinton`s desire to grant requests from some friends he owes a lot to," Colon Martinez said. "There could be some follow-up, but he didn`t commit to it. And without Congress` consent, I don`t find those efforts particularly useful."

Reacting to the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said Clinton was getting too involved in an issue that is clearly in Congress` jurisdiction. He suggested that the president was trying to win Hispanic votes for the Democrats.

But Berrios, who attended the White House meeting while recovering from prostate surgery, said he thought Vieques was the trigger. Puerto Rico`s intense confrontation with Washington over the use of the range since April 1999 has put the island`s problems, including status, on many radar screens.

San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon, who defends commonwealth status, went so far as to tell Clinton that talking about status was almost pointless without settling the Vieques issue first.

"At this moment, dealing with a procedure on status lacks credibility because we haven`t solved what, for me, is the most fundamental issue in U.S.-Puerto Rico relations right now," said Calderon, the Popular Democratic Party`s gubernatorial candidate. "It`s very hard to build something while bombs are falling."

But Berrios, who saw 122 of his militant PIP followers jailed during the weekend for refusing to pay bail after trespassing on the Navy`s grounds, said the Vieques issue shouldn`t prevent discussions with Clinton on status.

"It would be the most absurd thing in Puerto Rico`s history to use Vieques, the biggest symbol of colonialism in Puerto Rico, to not discuss our colonialism," Berrios said.

He stopped short of calling Calderon an obstructionist but stressed that local politicians need to rise above rhetoric on this issue. His counterparts who support statehood weren`t so generous.

They blasted Calderon for claiming that discussing status four months from Election Day was inappropriate.

Although they`ve won every plebiscite so far, commonwealth supporters have been on the defensive recently as factions within the PDP who want closer ties to the United States and those who want more autonomy struggle for power. The current "enhanced commonwealth" proposal calls for exemption from costly U.S. shipping laws and more autonomy in foreign trade and other aspects of economic development, while maintaining a common currency, common defense and U.S. citizenship.

Pro-statehood gubernatorial candidate Carlos Pesquera of the New Progressive Party questioned why Calderon didn`t want to make status a campaign issue and accused her of trying to stall any progress in the White House.

"She went there afraid that the truth be known, that her proposal on status doesn`t pass legal muster or Congress` constitutional analysis," Pesquera said.

To rise above the campaign rhetoric, Berrios proposed a constitutional assembly - a more formal and permanent way for Puerto Ricans to negotiate and craft the definitions of changes in status that could rule the future relationship with the United States. He hopes Clinton includes that in his proposal.

"At least no one raised any objections to that," he said. "It`s the first time a possibility like this comes up. That`s why I don`t lose hope. At least not yet."

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