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The Washington Post
50th Anniversary Stirs Debate In Puerto Rico
Island's Commonwealth Status Satisfies Few
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
July 25, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Sometimes, Gov. Sila M. Calderon calls her island homeland a "country," which it isn't. Sometimes, she calls it a "commonwealth," which it is.
The semantic to and fro is typical here, where identity can be a complex notion.
The debate over the island's identity -- and how it might evolve -- has been reinvigorated in the weeks leading up to today's 50th anniversary of the island's constitution, which established Puerto Rico as a commonwealth of the United States.
Some cry out for another vote on statehood, some want a constitution that gives more power to Puerto Rico's commonwealth, and some influential voices are pushing to declare the island a sovereign nation. Hardly anyone, including prominent commonwealth supporters such as Calderon, wants to leave things exactly as they are.
"It is a little bit awkward," said Jose Javier Colon, a political scientist at the University of Puerto Rico. "We're having a celebration of the constitution and the commonwealth. At the same time, the government and the political parties and segments of society are discussing ways of changing it."
The run-up to the anniversary celebration has been littered with botched political stunts. First, Carlos Pesquera, head of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, barged into a government building, trailed by television cameras, to plant an American flag next to a Puerto Rican flag. He faces criminal charges and snickers from observers who thought the whole thing looked silly, especially considering the hundreds of American flags lining streets, bridges and most government buildings.
Then, this week, Calderon tried to highlight Pesquera's refusal to join a new commission on the island's political status by placing a china coffee cup in front of an empty chair during a news conference. The image made all the television newscasts, but Pesquera later pointed out that he had said all along that he wouldn't be there.
Even Calderon rolls her eyes when reminded of the clunky symbolism.
For all the political sniping, the debate over the island's status is a serious one here. Under the commonwealth system, the island governs itself and Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship, as they have since 1917. Puerto Rico residents pay no federal income taxes, though they do contribute to Social Security, and they cannot elect representatives to Congress or vote in U.S. elections.
The island receives about $6 billion of its $22.7 billion annual budget from the United States, and Congress is in charge of a variety of key issues here, including defense, immigration and foreign trade.
Despite the financial and government connections, people across the political spectrum here say the island is forgotten and misunderstood. Many tourists who flood to the island from the States bring their passports, thinking they will need them to get in.
"There has to be a sense in the U.S. of what Puerto Rico is," Calderon said yesterday during an interview at her official residence, La Fortaleza, a 500-year-old building in San Juan. "There is a void. They don't have any idea. When there are voids, there are misconceptions."
Her response was to initiate a voter registration drive this summer -- not in Puerto Rico, which has a population of 3.8 million -- but in the United States, which is home to 3.4 million Puerto Ricans. She is hoping that registering Puerto Ricans to vote in U.S. elections will help the island in Congress.
Pesquera is skeptical, calling Puerto Rico "an island that has been left adrift."
"We know about the political power that comes with seniority in Congress," Pesquera said Tuesday over a breakfast of asopao, a rice and chicken stew. "It means you get your share -- plus. Today, we're not getting our share."
Pesquera's arguments, though, have failed to sway Puerto Rican voters. He was defeated two years ago by Calderon in the gubernatorial race. His New Progressive Party also lost plebiscites in 1993 and 1998, when Puerto Rican voters were asked to choose from a variety of status options, including statehood, independence and commonwealth.
In 1998, voters chose "none of the above."
Pesquera's party also has suffered from a series of scandals that led to a wave of indictments against high-ranking figures in the administration of Gov. Pedro Rossello, a New Progressive Party leader who preceded Calderon.
At the same time, independence groups have gotten aggressive. More than 700 people attended a forum this week in the inland town of Caguas to discuss independence, drawn in part by the surprise appearance of Rafael Hernandez Colon, a three-time governor and former leader of Calderon's Popular Democratic Party.
Colon, known as "the 72-hour man" because of his penchant for endlessly mulling ideas, acknowledged that achieving sovereign nation status would be difficult. He suggested that the "mentality" of the American people and Congress could not support it.
Nonetheless, he devoted his remarks almost entirely to a recent book that has stirred independence passions. The book -- "Cronica de una Guerra Anunciada" ("Chronicle of an Announced War") -- dissects previously unreleased documents that purportedly reveal secret negotiations for a sovereign island between the commonwealth's founder, Luis Muñoz Marin, and the Kennedy administration.
Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, the island's leading political analyst and a sovereign nation supporter, said in an interview this week that he was present as an aide to Muñoz Marin when the Puerto Rican leader rejected a deal offered by Kennedy administration negotiators that he called "the Dracula Plan."
According to Passalacqua, sovereign nation status would have been granted if Muñoz Marin had agreed to relocate the residents of the island of Vieques to the mainland and to unearth the dead who were buried there. At the time, he said, the United States wanted the entire island because it already had a naval base and bombing range there.
Decades later, in 1999, Vieques emerged as a turning point for Puerto Rico, when residents marched in protest of U.S. bombing tests there. President Bush later agreed to vacate the military installation on the island by May 2003.
"For the first time in the history of our island, we are disloyal to the United States," Passalacqua said. "You cannot transform a disloyal island into a state of the Union."
Miguel Dias, 56, a Caguas emergency services worker and commonwealth supporter, can't imagine it, either.
"I live under both flags," he said.
Anyone who drives to San Juan for the 50th anniversary celebration today will see proof of that on almost every roadside.