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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Pataki Declines To Take A Position On A Plebiscite For Puerto Rico
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
February 21, 2002
SAN JUAN, P.R., Feb. 20 Having waded well into Puerto Rican politics, Gov. George E. Pataki today found the waters uncomfortably choppy, as businessmen and reporters challenged him for refusing to take a position on the commonwealth's overarching issue, its status within the United States.
At a Rotary Club breakfast here and at news conferences, Mr. Pataki would not endorse or oppose the idea of holding a plebiscite, sponsored by the federal government, to determine the island's fate. "I would leave that to the federal officials working with the Puerto Rican officials," he said.
In the last year, the governor has become a vocal opponent of the Navy's use of the island of Vieques for bombing and other military exercises, lobbying President Bush on the issue, and claiming some credit for the president's promise to end the practice in 2003. That had raised Mr. Pataki's stature in Puerto Rico and in the growing Latino community in New York, and he has reiterated his view on Vieques several times since arriving here.
He has also forged a very public friendship with Gov. Sila M. Calderón, who, since he arrived here Tuesday, has offered him the kind of effusive praise people hire publicists for. Greeting him with an embrace and kisses Monday evening on the steps of the Fortaleza, the 16th-century palace that is the governor's residence, she called Mr. Pataki "a real friend of Puerto Rico and a real friend of mine." Today, she said, "We have opened our hearts and our arms wide open for him because we love him so much."
The relationship, which began when Mrs. Calderón asked for Mr. Pataki's help on Vieques last year at President Bush's inauguration, has been to the governor's mutual political benefit. Mrs. Calderón's Popular Democratic Party is closely tied to the Democratic Party, and Mr. Pataki is her only entree to the White House. In turn, Mrs. Calderón's repeated appearances at Mr. Pataki's side have bolstered his pursuit of Hispanic votes.
But things did not go smoothly here for Mr. Pataki when the subject turned to Puerto Rico's status, the issue that has dominated island politics almost continually since the United States took it from Spain in 1898. Many Puerto Ricans want the Congress to pass a law ordering a plebiscite, with clearly stated options and their consequences, that commits the federal government to abide by the winning choice. The commonwealth has sponsored its own popular votes on the issue in the last decade, but they carried no legal weight, and many people complained that the options were either inadequate or murky.
Mr. Pataki ducked the issue today, noting, even as he did so, that his reticence contrasted with his support for an initiative and referendum system in New York, and his oft-stated views that the will of the people should prevail. "I think it is appropriate that the United States federal government should respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico," he said but declined to endorse a plebiscite. When the issue was raised again later, he said, "I have no intention of getting involved in the politics of Puerto Rico."
Asked why he considered it inappropriate to involve himself in the status question as he did on Vieques, he said, "It was clear what the people of Vieques wanted, and I had no problem reflecting, in my view, not just the desires of the people of Vieques, but also what I believe made common sense."
The issue led to the first public rift on this trip between the Republican governor and the Latino state legislators he brought with him, a group of Democrats to whom he has grown closer in recent years. "There must be a plebiscite, and he should support it," said Assemblyman Jose Rivera of the Bronx. "We cannot continue the present colonial status."
But Mr. Pataki's position is the same as that of Mrs. Calderón, who has long refused to address the question of status, saying that it had overshadowed issues like health care and education, to the overall detriment of Puerto Rico.
The island's four million residents are United States citizens and can move freely to the states, but they cannot vote in presidential elections and have no representation in Congress. They also do not pay federal income tax.
Puerto Ricans have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the commonwealth status they have had since 1952, but many fear the alternatives, and no option has gained the support of a clear majority. What is clear, from public opinion polls and the votes that have been held, is that support has grown for statehood and for "free association," an autonomous status somewhat short of complete independence, with continued United States citizenship for Puerto Rican residents. Few people support outright independence.
Today, Mr. Pataki and Mrs. Calderón visited a medical clinic in Isabela, where they spoke of New York's and Puerto Rico's parallel efforts to develop a health care "smart card" that will allow any doctor presented with the card to get access a patient's complete records.