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Associated Press Newswires

Few But Fervent, Puerto Rican 'Independentistas' Prefer 'Dignity' To Prosperity


November 4, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Books, old newspapers and crates filled with a lifetime of ideas cram the small cement house where Gloria Arjona spends her days amid lush Caribbean greenery, sipping passion fruit juice and dreaming of independence for Puerto Rico .

There's an election coming up next week - same day as in the mainland United States - and as usual Puerto Rico 's new governor will be either a supporter of U.S. statehood or a proponent of the semiautonomous status quo.

But Arjona has little time for their debate over the pros and cons of the link with the United States - federal funds, welfare programs, constitutional rights and ways of exercising U.S. citizenship. She has a simpler position.

"We cannot forever continue to be ruled by another people," says Arjona, a former Spanish literature professor, waving her arms. "We must learn to begin deciding our own destiny. We cannot be both Puerto Rican and American. We do not even speak the same language."

She has been saying this all her life - deeply felt words that contain the seeds of a political, cultural, and semantic debate that has raged here since U.S. troops seized the island in the Spanish-American war in 1898.

Are the Americans "another people?" After all, note statehood supporters, Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. The United States is a collection of peoples, they say; do they all speak "the same language?" Is Spanish at odds with Americanness? And does or does not Puerto Rico , under the 48-year-old "commonwealth" deal, decide its "own destiny?"

The meaning of commonwealth varies in the eyes of many.

Congress and many constitutional experts say it means federal law reigns supreme and Washington has ultimate say on the island.

But supporters of the status quo - partly backed by some U.S. court decisions - see the arrangement as a "compact" between the United States and something closer to a sovereign nation.

Under the commonwealth - whose designer, legendary Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Munoz Marin, was Arjano's father-in-law - the 4 million islanders don't pay federal taxes but do receive some $13 billion in federal funds, do send a non-voting delegate to Congress but don't vote in U.S. presidential elections.

A debate over the last point was ignited this year when a San Juan-based federal judge ruled Puerto Ricans should have the right to vote for U.S. president. The decision was overturned by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

But it was hardly a boost for the status quo: Chief Appellate Judge Juan R. Torruella urged change, blasting what he termed a "national disenfranchisement" and a "colonial condition (that) runs against the very principles upon which (the United States) was founded."

Statehood was just barely rejected by voters in non-binding referendums in 1993 and 1998. In the last vote, the status quo squeaked by with 46 percent.

But the continuing challenges to the commonwealth has many concerned that the United States might one day impose a stark choice between statehood and independence.

No one knows how that would play. The pro-commonwealth vote could split, giving statehood a solid majority at last. But many voters could boycott such a referendum , depriving statehood of the legitimacy it would need to pass muster in Congress.

One possibility being mooted is an "associated republic" - which amounts to independence with very strong ties to the United States. But that would likely mean the loss of U.S. citizenship for future generations - a prospect that terrifies even some nationalists here.

"The dignity of nations comes from independence," says sociologist Cesar Rey, dean of academic affairs at Puerto Rico 's University of the Sacred Heart. Still, with two-thirds of the population receiving some sort of federal assistance - welfare, veteran's pensions - "independence is still too intimidating to many Puerto Ricans."

"There is no way we could live the way we do, with nice cars and nice clothes and nice houses," says Miguel Cordero, 35, who like others casts a wary eye west to the neighboring Dominican Republic, source of a constant stream of desperate boat people. "We must remain part of the United States if we don't want to be poor like the rest of the Caribbean."

But Alberto Posada, a 27-year-old salesman, would sacrifice.

"I'd rather not have to make a choice because we benefit from having access to America, from being part of something larger, something richer," he says. "But if there were only two choices - it would be independence that I would vote for."

Independence sentiment seems strongest among idealistic young people and intellectuals - and it can also be a family affair.

"Of course there will be an economic price, but do we need to be rich?" says Cecilia Cordero, Arjona's fiercely proud 24-year-old granddaughter. "The Americans are destroying our country with shopping centers (where) people just buy and buy because it's there. It's not Puerto Rican.

"It's the American way of life, and I don't want to be anything but Puerto Rican."

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