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The Associated Press

License Plate Debate In Puerto Rico Bares Deep-Seated Emotions About U.S. Territory's Status

By Ian James

February 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - One of the hottest debates in Puerto Rican politics revolves not around how to manage the economy, or how to fight poverty.

It's all about a new license plate, and the row has brought new spirit to the ever-present debate about Puerto Rico 's uncommon status as a U.S. territory.

The new 2002 license plate, draped with images of the Puerto Rican and U.S. flags, commemorates the Caribbean island's 50th anniversary as a "Free Associated State" under U.S. jurisdiction.

Pro-independence Sen. Fernando Martin argues the license plate forces drivers to be like "rolling billboards" for the governing party, which supports Puerto Rico 's current commonwealth status .

Drivers now can choose between two plates for their cars - the new one celebrating 50 years as a "Free Associated State," or the old one with the slogan "Island of Enchantment." Each costs dlrs 10.

Martin said on Tuesday that the new license plates will make some reveal their political views. "It forces citizens who choose the normal license plate to identify themselves as being against the government," he said.

The administration of Gov. Sila Calderon has defended the new license plate as a rightful commemoration of the "Free Associated State," which was approved by Puerto Rican voters and took effect July 25, 1952.

Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado said whether Puerto Ricans use the license plates "is a very personal decision" that would not affect them in any way. Nevertheless, he asked Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodriguez for a legal opinion.

Martin and others believe the plates violate free speech rights. "If it isn't resolved, we are going to go to the courts," Martin said.

Calderon, who supports the current commonwealth status , was elected in 2000, replacing Gov. Pedro Rossello, whose New Progressive Party led an unsuccessful drive to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

The pro- statehood party's general secretary, Angel Cintron, said the license plate constitutes "a political symbol" and illegal use of public funds.

Officials said they spent dlrs 204,000 to produce the first 120,000 new license plates.

In nonbinding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998, Puerto Ricans voted to keep the island's current status . The "Free Associated State" was the brainchild of Luis Munoz Marin, Puerto Rico 's first elected governor.

Before his election in 1948, Washington appointed Puerto Rico 's governors. The island has been a U.S. territory since 1898, when U.S. troops invaded and wrested control from the Spanish.

Today, although Puerto Rico is among the wealthiest places in Latin America, poverty is more severe than in the mainland United States.

Iris Pastrana, a 23-year-old sales representative, said she sees the license plates as an "unnecessary expense" incurred by politicians.

"There are other more important things they should resolve," she said.

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