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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

Conference Examines Status Of Puerto Rico


November 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001
North Jersey Media Group Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

How does this deal sound?

From now on, you will not owe any income taxes to the federal government. In return, you will be barred from voting in federal elections.

That is the trade-off Puerto Ricans have made for more than a century. For some of the island's 3.8 million inhabitants, it's a convenient arrangement. For others, it's humiliating, even a mark of oppression.

"Despite its being a community of U.S. citizens, it is viewed as being somehow different, which translates into being less worthy of dignified treatment," said Efren Rivera Ramos, the dean of the University of Puerto Rico School of Law.

That resentment, which boiled over earlier this year in response to the U.S. Navy's bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , found an outlet Friday and Saturday at Princeton University.

The students who organized the conference, " Puerto Ricans : Second Class Citizens in Our Democracy?" didn't hide their political leanings. But the event was less a rally than an academic symposium, with polite, sober panel discussions in comfortable lecture halls, meals included.

The one exception to the event's low-key tone came Friday, when a bomb threat disrupted the keynote speech by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the most prominent opponents of the Navy's military exercises on Vieques .

The anonymous caller to the university switchboard said a bomb would go off during Jackson's speech in McCosh Hall. The event was delayed an hour and was moved to a neighboring building.

Jackson, whose wife, Jacqueline, spent 10 days in jail for trespassing on the Navy's bombing range during a protest this summer, said the use of the tiny island was "antithetical to democratic principles." The Navy contends that Vieques provides a crucial training ground for its pilots.

Although a good portion of the conference was devoted to Vieques , that issue also served as a catalyst to a wider discussion of Puerto Rico 's ambiguous relationship with the United States.

Puerto Ricans , as U.S. citizens, can hold U.S. passports and travel freely to the mainland. Beyond that, however, they do not have the same rights conferred on all other citizens by the U.S. Constitution.

Puerto Ricans can vote in federal elections only if they establish residence in one of the 50 states. Any mainland residents who move to Puerto Rico must forfeit their right to vote in federal elections.

Puerto Ricans legal status has its roots in racism, said Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

After the United States captured Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, the nation's leaders decided that its inhabitants were not fit for full political rights, he said.

"The legal status of Puerto Rico remains a cancer in the body of American constitutional law," Smith said.

Puerto Ricans , however, are divided on the benefits or curses of their status.

"Many people in Puerto Rico associate U.S. citizenship with tangible economic, political, social, and cultural benefits," said Ramos, the law school dean. Those benefits, he added, have undermined any moves toward independence.

Clearing up the ambiguity won't be easy, said Sonia Sotomayor, a daughter of Puerto Ricans who grew up in the Bronx, graduated from Princeton, and now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York. If the island's inhabitants decide they want statehood, they probably will meet resistance from many mainland residents.

"This may be a reverse war of independence," she said. "You may have the first battle to become a state."

American courts, she said, won't be of much help. Laws and court decisions for a century have upheld Puerto Rico 's status, and that doesn't give its inhabitants much basis for demanding statehood.

"It will have to be a decision among negotiators, not among legal combatants," she said.

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