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THE MIAMI HERALD
'Either It's the Republic of Puerto Rico or Statehood'
by Maurice Ferre
November 1, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Maurice Ferre, who is Puerto Rican, is a former Miami mayor.
What is going on with Puerto Rico that it suddenly seems everywhere
in the headlines?
A year ago it was the inconclusive referendum where Puerto
Rico's voters split on the issue of statehood or commonwealth.
More recently it was a question of clemency for 14 Puerto Rican
independentistas. Then last week a Defense Department task force
recommended a phase out of the Navy's use of Vieques Island for
live-bombing runs, which claimed the life of a local man when
a bomb went astray.
Each of these events is important by itself. But they share
an underlying connection: Each also points up the uneasy and unique
relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Voters
on the island are at least partly responsible. In a referendum
last year, Puerto Ricans split almost evenly on the question of
commonwealth - a kind of second-class statehood - or statehood,
which would mean being subjected to U.S. taxes and giving up such
symbols as the right to field an Olympic team.
Were it not for the spate of controversies, this tragic indecisiveness
on self-determination would have been cause for Congress, the
press and the public to continue ignoring Puerto Rico. But Vieques
broke the silence. In a surprising show of unity, all major politicians,
parties and institutions on the island agreed with Gov. Pedro
Rossello's Special Committee's demands that the shelling be stopped.
It also elicited sympathy in Washington, D.C. Said Rep. Dan
``Try convincing your constituents to accept that having uranium-coated
bombs dropped within a few miles of their homes, schools, hospitals
and public parks is acceptable. If this practice were occurring
in any of the 50 States, I know we would all band together to
Yet there is no question that Puerto Ricans support the military.
More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have fought in 20th Century wars.
Some 1,206 Puerto Ricans have been killed in these wars, a higher
per-capita average of deaths than in the mainland.
Couple this patriotism with the feelings of many Puerto Ricans
that the Navy fails to respect them. The Vieques bombing is as
much a human-rights issue as was the Tuskegee experiments that
disregarded black people's rights in the name of national security.
These anti-federal government feelings fed into the third Puerto
Rican story: President Clinton's amnesty grant to 14 Puerto Ricans,
most of them born in the U.S. mainland, who had been imprisoned
for the past 19 years. It should be remembered that the President
didn't offer amnesty to any person who committed murder or any
direct acts of terrorism. Under any civilized standard, the punishment
did not fit the crime as prosecuted and as adjudicated.
Clemency righted the injustice of over-punishing ``seditious''
citizens who, in their minds, gave their all to liberate their
country from the oppression of an invader.
It's critical to understand that the strong feelings arising
from these incidents are directly related to Puerto Rico's political-limbo
status. The electorate is confused about the kind of relationship
it wants, splitting 46/46 percent in every election since 1968.
The remaining 3 percent are for independence, while a swing 5
percent decides the outcome.
Why no change? Because the island and the mainland are handcuffed
by their individual histories. After 100 years of brainwashing,
many Puerto Ricans have the typical ``colonial'' view of life
seen in other parts of the world. They are used to being dependent.
Meanwhile, the United States doesn't have the mentality to
be a colonial power in the fashion of, say, Great Britain. Some
100 years after taking possession, Congress is as confused about
what to do with Puerto Rico as are the Puerto Ricans.
The answer is simple and harsh: Congress should clearly, decisively
and carefully outline exact and fair conditions by which it would
grant statehood - or remotely, independence - to Puerto Rico should
the populace select it.
There is no middle ground anymore; either it is the Republic
of Puerto Rico (associated or not) or statehood. The Constitution
has no provisions for second-rate citizenship under a ``commonwealth
status.'' Yet that is how many Puerto Ricans feel we are being
Under the Treaty of Paris of 1898, Congress holds the sovereignty
of Puerto Rico. Thus, only Congress can give the people of Puerto
Rico full sovereignty by granting full independence or true and
full assimilation into the Union.
This is no time for American denial; it is time for Congress
to act. Now.