MIAMI — The puzzle of Puerto Rico's status will be at issue again on Sunday, when an expected 1.5 million voters go to the polls to choose from a welter of ballot options that includes statehood, commonwealth and "none of the above."
Recent surveys indicate that a plurality of more than 40% will support Gov. Pedro Rossello's push to make the island the 51st state. Puerto Rico is now a U.S. commonwealth, and its 3.8 million residents are American citizens.
"If after 100 years the U.S. . . . does not possess the will to end a century of colonialism, Puerto Rico does," Rossello said.
But leaders of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party have urged its supporters to vote "none of the above" to protest the plebiscite's wording. "There is no doubt that commonwealth status is not represented on the ballot," PDP President Anibal Acevedo Vila said.
Polls suggest that "none of the above" will draw almost as many votes as statehood.
The other two options are free association, which would grant the island sovereignty but allow Puerto Ricans to retain U.S. citizenship, and independence. Those options together are expected to attract less than 10% of the vote.
Police will be out in force Sunday, all liquor sales will be banned until 3 p.m. and almost 75% of Puerto Rico's registered voters are expected to turn out for the vote, which will be the third on status since the island became a commonwealth in 1952. Commonwealth was favored in 1967 and 1993 votes.
But discontent over the island's intermediate status has been growing and so too has support for statehood. This vote, authorized by the Republican-controlled U.S. House in March, was seen as a first step in boosting the issue of Puerto Rico's political future to a higher rung on the political agenda in Washington.
But the Senate failed to act on a similar status measure, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a co-sponsor of the bill, has resigned. Incoming Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) voted against the status bill.
If none of the ballot options wins a majority of the vote, the conundrum of Puerto Rico--seized by U.S. troops 100 years ago during the Spanish-American War--is likely to endure. While universally proud of their cultural identity as Latinos and Spanish speakers, Puerto Ricans are deeply divided over loosening economic and political ties to the United States.
And even if statehood does pull the most votes in the nonbinding plebiscite, adding a 51st star to the American flag would require considerable political will, several acts of Congress and at least a decade.
Nonetheless, some political analysts see Sunday's vote as important not because of its outcome but because of the form of the ballot, which is designed as a petition. "We the people," begins the ballot, "firmly request that the Congress of the U.S., with all deliberate speed and after 100 years of political subordination, define conclusively the political condition of the people of Puerto Rico and . . . solve the present territorial problem of the island."
"This is a first in that it effectively blackmails the Congress to redress the grievances of colonialism," said veteran political analyst J. M. Garcia Passalacqua. "I think the issue of Puerto Rico will now become the Hispanic issue for the 2000 election."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.