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Puerto Ricans Face a Road With Three Forks : Politics: Islanders wait for Congress to set ground rules for a vote on the country's future: statehood, independence or a modified status quo.

January 06, 1991|Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago | Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago, a Times editor, was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico

A small Caribbean island anxiously awaits action by the 102nd U.S. Congress on whether its people will get to vote on their political future--an exercise in self-determination the United States has supported around the globe.

But the broad strokes of a consistent foreign policy can easily get mired in the political expediencies of domestic affairs. Last year, the House of Representatives approved a bill permitting a referendum in Puerto Rico to determine its political status. The Senate demurred, however, and the effort died with the end of 101st Congress in November.

The choices are three: U.S. statehood, independence or a continuation, with some modifications, of the current commonwealth status.

The commonwealth--or "free associated state"--status is unique. Puerto Rico's 1952 Constitution granted the people a form of self-government similar to that enjoyed by the mainland states. But Uncle Sam provides for Puerto Rico's defense, foreign policy and trade arrangements as a U.S. territory.

Although Puerto Ricans pay a hefty amount of income taxes to the commonwealth's coffers, island residents are exempt from federal taxes--a consequence of the principle of no taxation without representation. Under the U.S.-commonwealth arrangement, the island's sole representative in the federal government is the resident commissioner, limited to a voice with no vote on the floor of the U.S. House.

The island is represented by voting delegations in the Democratic and Republican national conventions, although islanders cannot vote in presidential elections.

The party currently in power, the Popular Democratic Party, favors a modified commonwealth status and has traditional ties with the Democratic Party on the U.S. mainland. The main opposition party, the New Progressive Party, wants the island to become the 51st state and has historical ties to the GOP.

A third party, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, consistently places a distant third in islandwide elections.

All bets are off when it comes to handicapping whether a majority of Puerto Rican voters will favor statehood or commonwealth. Because of the Independence Party's low showing in island elections and concern that a sovereign but natural-resources-poor Puerto Rico would fall prey to authoritarian rule or other foreign powers, the pro-independence forces are not expected to count strongly.

But chances of a vote for independence will be greatly enhanced, according to Carlos Romero Barcelo, leader of the New Progressive Party, if Congress imposes what Puerto Ricans may consider offensive or onerous conditions for a continued relationship with the United States.

The line has not been clearly drawn as to what Puerto Ricans will or won't accept. Undesirable conditions might include an accelerated schedule for imposing federal income taxes, limitations on travel of Puerto Ricans between the island and the mainland, long delays for implementation of the winning option and imposition of English as the public language.

As is the case with other parts of Latin America, Puerto Ricans are immensely proud of the island's heritage and culture, which is closely tied to the predominance of the Spanish language. Puerto Rico, the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles, was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage and ceded (along with the Philippines) to the United States in 1898, after the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.

Although all Puerto Ricans have long been required to study English as a second language, Spanish is the language of its government and its people.

The Puerto Rican Legislature is considering sending Congress a message by declaring Spanish to be the official language. The bill has been approved by the Puerto Rico House and will be taken up this month in its Senate. It would, in effect, revoke a 1902 law that made English and Spanish the island's official languages.

Before any of these issues come to the fore, the referendum must be scheduled. And until Congress and the Puerto Rican Legislature have spoken, the political uncertainty that dominates Puerto Rican life and makes politics the island's most passionate pastime will remain.

The last attempt to resolve the issue was made in 1967, in a controversial plebiscite. Commonwealth status won with 60% of the vote, compared with 39% for statehood and 0.6% for independence--although balloting was boycotted by some independentistas, and nearly one-third of eligible voters stayed home.

The new Congress, particularly the Senate, will have to smooth out a variety of political impediments before the plebiscite can be held. Issues include whether the process should involve one or two votes by islanders in reaching a final decision; who should be allowed to vote in the plebiscite, and what kind of schedule the adoption of any new status would require--particularly complicated if islanders vote for statehood.

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