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Senate Hearings On Puerto Rico's Status Sought Amid Clemency Controversy

by Lynn Duke

September 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE WASHINGTON POST. All Rights Reserved.

Still roiled by opposition to the presidential clemencies recently granted to Puerto Rican militants, New York politicians of Puerto Rican heritage have asked the Senate to hold public hearings on the ultimate political status of Puerto Rico just as it is holding hearings on the clemencies.

Seizing the moment to put forward another issue that has rumbled, though less explosively than clemencies, in the prospective Senate campaign of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the 15 legislators also want the Senate to hold hearings on the Navy's use of Vieques Island, off Puerto Rico. The Navy has used Vieques as its East Coast firing range for several decades but was forced to suspend operations in April after protesters converged on it when one civilian was killed and four others were hurt from a bomb that went off target.

"We believe that your present hearings on the president's clemency toward the Puerto Rican political prisoners focuses on the symptom rather than the fundamental problem that this Senate has failed to address: the ultimate political status of Puerto Rico," the 15 legislators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on Thursday. They include two Democratic members of Congress, Reps. Jose E. Serrano and Nydia M. Velasquez.

Puerto Rican leaders were deeply offended when their long-term effort to win presidential clemencies for 16 Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned since the 1970s and early 1980s degenerated into a political firestorm that has led to hearings.

President Clinton offered the clemencies in early August, on the grounds that none of the 16 was convicted for a violent act that injured or killed anyone and that the sentences were excessive.

But clemency opponents, especially Republicans, labeled the offer a bald attempt to win New York's Puerto Rican votes for Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign. Others, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), believed that the offer contradicted the president's stand against terrorism.

When Hillary Clinton said she opposed the clemency offer, she was criticized for what was widely perceived as a political move to distance herself from a controversy. She has not taken a position on Vieques, saying she would await a presidential panel's findings this month.

These issues, say Serrano and others, stem from the unresolved question of Puerto Rico's status after 100 years of being, in effect, a U.S. territory. For the past 47 years, its status has been as a commonwealth.

Puerto Ricans on the island are U.S. citizens and subject to military service but pay no federal taxes, cannot vote in presidential elections and are represented in Congress by a delegate with no floor-voting powers.

Last year, the House passed a bill that would have set the terms for a Puerto Rican vote to seek and implement a final political status. The Senate objected, however, and refused to allow formal recognition of a Puerto Rican vote.

A Puerto Rican referendum was conducted in December, but its outcome was inconclusive. A narrow majority (50.2 percent) voted for a category called "none of the above," which was put forward as a protest against change, and 46.5 percent voted for statehood.

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