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Statehood Issue Is Caught in Stalemate

Puerto Rico and Congress Are Waiting for the Other to Define the Political Relationship


January 15, 1999
©Copyright 1999 Osceola Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel
Sun-Sentinel, South Florida

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - The people of Puerto Rico are divided. Congress won't take a stand. How can Puerto Rico resolve its decades- old debate over political status with the United States?

That's the question after last month's balloting, where island voters again split almost evenly in two of five measures: 46 for statehood and 50 percent for the option supported by the pro- commonwealth party - which was "none of the above."

The result was nearly the same reflected in a 1993 vote, and neither was binding on Congress.

Resolving the status problem seems locked in a chicken-and-egg bind.

In San Juan, voters look to Washington to spell out terms for Puerto Rico to become a state, enhance its current commonwealth or go independent. Voters want details on thorny issues such as language, citizenship and taxes, and they want Congress to guarantee it will implement the winning choice.

But in the 100 years since U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, Congress has never detailed the options for Puerto Rico or authorized islanders to choose.

"I think there are many people who won't vote or decide until they understand that Congress is taking this seriously," said Oreste Ramos, a veteran statehood leader. "Without that, our votes become a question of local politics, not resolving status ."

In Washington, politicians look first to Puerto Ricans to decide.

U.S. leaders say it's too complex to spell out details first. And they have little incentive to take on the difficult task - Puerto Rico has no floor votes in the House or Senate to trade, nor do residents vote for president.

That stalemate costs time, energy and money in San Juan and Washington, with no end in sight for a political relationship that many describe as the world's biggest colony or an island in limbo.

The two major parties in Puerto Rico have resorted to scare tactics to support their position, sometimes making wild and unsubstantiated claims.

Commonwealth supporters allege that if Puerto Rico becomes a state, the island will lose its Spanish language and culture and pay far more taxes.

One four-page glossy ad before last month's vote that appeared in Caribbean Business newspaper claimed Puerto Ricans might lose their homes because property taxes would be far higher under statehood .

Statehood supporters, meanwhile, claim that under commonwealth, Congress can take away Puerto Ricans' U.S. citizenship and cut off federal funds.

Some say the locally governed commonwealth is taxing residents more than they'd pay in federal taxes. And they claim only statehood - and full representation in Congress - can ensure long-term federal benefits and attract new business from overseas.

Still, few voters appear swayed from long-held preferences.

"I'm with Sila (Calderon, a leader of the pro-commonwealth PDP party)," said Elias Martinez Roman, 72, a bus driver. "My parents and all my family, we're all for that party."

Puerto Rico 's two biggest voting blocs - the supporters of commonwealth and statehood - share common goals that could serve as starting points to break the stalemate: Permanent U.S. links. Guaranteed U.S. citizenship. Continued use of the Spanish language and preserving island culture. Continued U.S. financial help. Reasonable taxes.

Economists say there's little incentive for consensus-building when Puerto Ricans are doing fairly well under commonwealth.

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