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'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 Burton, R-Indiana:

``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 oppose it.''

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 treated.

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.

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