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Puerto Rico Leaders Demand To Know Political Status Options; Senators Reply That Some Want 'Free Lunch' Status

WASHINGTON -- May 6 -- The contentious debate over Puerto Rico's future moved from the island to a Senate hearing room as advocates put their spin on last December's inconclusive plebiscite.

Puerto Rican leaders faulted Congress for failing to lay out a road map for the territory's future. Senators shot back that some Puerto Ricans are seeking a "free lunch" status giving them the benefits but not the responsibilities of federal union.

Last year the House passed, by a one-vote margin, a bill authorizing a Puerto Rico statehood referendum. When the Senate failed to move on the legislation, the island went ahead with its own plebiscite -- in which 46.5 percent supported statehood but a majority 50.2 percent cast ballots for a "none of the above" option. The rest, 0.1 percent voted for the territorial commonwealth status quo, while 2.8 percent voted for independence or free association.

In a packed hearing of the Senate Energy Committee, Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rosselló said that the plebiscite on Puerto Rico 's future proved inconclusive in part because Congress has yet to define the options -- from statehood to independence.

Rossello said commonwealth advocates presented voters a false, unattainable and unconstitutional choice, a mix of the benefits of statehood and independence.

Supporters of commonwealth status had rejected the definition on the ballot, wording that Rosselló said reflected the current status. It received less than 1 percent of the vote. "Whatever else our plebiscite may have signified, it indisputably constituted a virtually unanimous rejection of the status quo," Rosselló said.

He urged lawmakers to review the options and set out specific definitions that Congress could accept.

"After 100 years of waiting, we would expect Congress to act on its responsibilities," said Rosselló, who supports statehood.

Then, he said, the choices again should be put to the Puerto Rican people.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., asked Rosselló what he wanted next from Congress. And the governor said he wants congressional approval on a set of options that Puerto Ricans can vote on.

Rossello pointed out that many former territories did not win a majority for joining the Union until Congress passed similar legislation setting out congressionally sanctioned options.

Several senators were clearly supportive, though Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, in a heated exchange with Rosselló, complained that "you constantly come here and shift the blame to the Congress. I'm getting a little impatient with it always being our responsibility."

Rosselló shot back -- to the delight of supporters in the crowded room -- that he too was growing impatient with the status quo and that Thomas was just trying to wash his hands of congressional responsibility.

As the hearing progressed, proponents of commonwealth status, independence and an option known as a free associated state gave their own interpretations of the ambiguous election results to the senators. "The absolute majority vote for 'none of the above' is a clear rejection of statehood," said Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, president of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. "Voters understood perfectly well that by rejecting these status alternatives on the ballot, the commonwealth relationship, as we know it, would continue."

Acevedo-Vilá said the definition of commonwealth on the ballot was deliberately misleading, forcing supporters to campaign for "none of the preceding."

He argued that the vote was in fact a strong endorsement of an enhanced version of the existing commonwealth under which Puerto Ricans would receive more political and economic independence claiming that most of the "none of the above" voters backed their position, which was not on the ballot.

Under the current commonwealth arrangement, Puerto Rico 's 3.8 million residents are U.S. citizens, but they cannot, vote in presidential elections and have no voting representative in Congress. People on the island pay no federal income tax, but they have been subject to a military draft, when in effect, and continue to serve in the nation's armed forces.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., questioned Acevedo-Vilá's interpretation of the "none of the above" vote referring to a Zogby International poll sponsored by the Puerto Rico Herald which found that only 37.3 percent of the 'none of the above' voters favored another definition of commonwealth not on the ballot while a full 44.8 percent gave as their reasons for selecting this option a range of protests unrelated to the status issue.

Landrieu also grilled Acevedo-Vilá on his definition of enhanced commonwealth, demanding that his party put it in writing.

She said Puerto Rico would not be able to enter into trade agreements with foreign countries or choose which laws passed by Congress to follow while continuing to receive federal support.

Those who would have Puerto Ricans keep their U.S. citizenship, income-tax-free status and access to federal funding while giving them economic sovereignty are offering a "false choice because there are no free lunches," she said.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, called it the "free beer and barbecue option."

Other witnesses said much of the "none of the above" vote represented a protest vote associated more with other frustrations with the system.

Zoraida Fonalledas, the Republican National Committeewoman for Puerto Rico speaking on behalf of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said that "[T]he "none of the above" option was chosen by many voters who wished to express themselves on a variety of issues other than status: from privatization of the phone company to the timing of the vote after a hurricane and before Christmas."

Rubén Berrios Martínez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, said that for the past decade "Congress has repeatedly failed to authorize a federally sponsored referendum, even when all Puerto Rican political parties have unanimously endorsed such a petition."

Although the independence option managed less than 3 percent of the vote, he said the referendum was a clear victory for some form of sovereignty for the island.

As they did in a 1993 referendum, "an absolute majority of voters once again refused to vote for statehood," and rejected the commonwealth strongly, added Berrios Martinez.

Prospects for congressional action this year are slim as Republican support for changing Puerto Rico's status appears shaken by the mixed messages from the voters. Committee Chairman Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, hinted that he does not expect major congressional action on Puerto Rico 's status during the 106th Congress.

"Given that next year is a general election at the federal level and in Puerto Rico, I am not inclined to confuse those debates with status nor to subject the very important issues involved in status to politics," Murkowski said.

Rossello said he does not want to wait two years for another referendum. "If that were the argument, then we would never act. There's always an election two years from now." Democrats on the committee, however, appeared to remain committed to quick action on statehood.

Sen. Landrieu, for example, said statehood appears to have the strongest mandate of any realistic option from the island's voters.

Compiled from: AP Online, Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved, EFE News Service, Copyright (C) 1999 EFE News Services (U.S.) Inc.; Source: World Reporter (TM), The Star-Ledger Newark, N.J. (Copyright Newark Morning Ledger Co., 1999), The Hartford Courant (Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 1999), The Washington Times (Copyright 1999), Newsday, (Copyright Newsday Inc., 1999), The Orlando Sentinel (Copyright 1999 @ Orlando Sentinel), The Baltimore Sun (Copyright 1999 @ The Baltimore Sun Company)


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