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Time To Prepare For Young Status Hearings

That's The Next Showdown In The Long Saga Of Puerto Rico's Status, As Local Parties Ready Their Lobby Machines Again

by John Collins

January, 1999
©Copyright 1999 Caribbean Business

Washington - Now the waiting begins for the next round of congressional hearings on Puerto Rico's status. But first, there is an important matter to resolve.

Attention on Puerto Rico and its relationship with the US has been largely marginalized with the nation's capital gripped in the impeachment crisis.

Members of Congress and Clinton administration officials involved in Puerto Rico are following developments on the island stemming from the December 13th status plebiscite, but most others told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS privately that they are confused, find the situation too complicated, or are preoccupied with other issues and just don't have the time to devote to the island.

The principal word out of Washington has come from Chairman Don Young (R-AK)) of the House Resources Committee which oversees the territories. He announced the day after the plebiscite that he intends to hold hearings to evaluate the December 13th vote in early 1999 when the 106th Congress takes office.

"The Chairman wants to determine why 50.3% of the voters chose 'None of the Above' when constitutionally and congressionally acceptable options were put before them," Steve Hansen, Young's communication director, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS.

This has sent political parties in Puerto Rico back to the drawing board to prepare their presentations, as they rev up their respective lobbying machines to influence Congress and the White House.

Statehood proponents want Washington to interpret the plebiscite results as at least a partial victory for statehood and to therefore move to turn Puerto Rico into the 51st state even though statehood obtained 46.5% of the vote. The 'None of the Above' column, statehooders argue, rather than a vote for any particular status, was motivated by a series of confusing forces that do not necessarily mean Puerto Rico residents do not want statehood.

In his statement, Young indicated that "although statehood received the highest vote, the fact that 50.3% checked 'None of the Above' reflects the diverse opinions of the 3.8 million US citizens on the island, a significant level of confusion and their inability to resolve an issue which costs American taxpayers over $10 billion each year.

"I see statehood and separate sovereignty as acceptable alternatives for Congress," the Alaska Republican, whose state entered the Union in 1959, said. "Because 'None of the Above' received the majority vote, I intend to conduct oversight hearings to see what led people to cast votes against the only constitutional options available to Puerto Rico which were on the ballot."

Enrique Fernandez, senior policy advisor to Rep. Luis Guitierrez (D-IL), thinks the Young approach is headed for trouble in the new Congress because it fails to recognize the international implications of Puerto Rico's status.

"Young wants to settle the problem of Puerto Rico as an internal matter of the US, whereas Congressman Guitierrez supports the decolonization process," he said. "Puerto Rico is a distinct cultural and historical entity and you can't treat it like Oklahoma or Alabama.

If Congress does not provide Puerto Rico with all the instruments for autonomous economic and political development, what will happen is that the same polarization on the island that Young warns about will increase," he continued.

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