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Anniversary Fuels Rancor, Activists Refuse To Party

Anniversary Fuels Rancor Over Puerto Rico's Status

MATTHEW HAY BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

July 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A panel proposed by Gov. Sila M. Calderón to resolve Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States is a "committee of lies" intended to court voters without settling anything, pro-statehood politician Leo Díaz says.

The pro-commonwealth Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado retorts that the refusal of pro-statehood leaders to participate in the panel would be an "irresponsibility" that would deprive their supporters of a voice in a historic process.

It is a measure of the distance between Puerto Rico's major political parties on the question of the territory's political status that they cannot even agree on how to discuss the issue.

Few here are wholly satisfied with the current arrangement, in which the Caribbean island is a U.S. commonwealth, a unique status that some liken to being a colony, where citizens enjoy some federal rights and not others.

But as Puerto Ricans observe the 50th anniversary of the designation this month, party leaders seem focused less on addressing the central question of Puerto Rican politics and more on attacking each other.

Calderón, whose pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party favors maintaining the current relationship but wants more autonomy in trade and other matters, has called on leaders of the three major parties to appoint a committee to discuss status.

She says the Committee on Puerto Rican Unity and Consensus, composed of equal numbers of pro-commonwealth, pro-statehood and pro-independence appointees, would develop a proposal to present to Washington.

The Puerto Rican Independence Party supports the concept, but an assembly of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party voted last year to reject it.

New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera has proposed a direct meeting of the three party leaders with President Bush to discuss status. Calderon has dismissed that idea.

"Whatever proposal is made in the United States should be made in the unity of a consensus," she said. "Part of the reason there has not been a response [from Washington] is because the parties each go their own way."

Pro-statehood politicians say Calderón is attempting to distract voters from her shortcomings in office.

"The governor came now with this theme of status because of the public pressure that she is not achieving her campaign promises," New Progressive Party Sen. Norma Burgos said.

And so, after half a century and several inconclusive votes on status, politics in Puerto Rico remains bitterly gridlocked on its most divisive issue.

Ultimately, that disunity may not matter. Any change would require the approval of Washington. And while President Bush has said Puerto Rico's status is an issue for Puerto Ricans to decide, Congress will have the final word, and Congress has shown little interest in revisiting the relationship it approved in 1952.

Under that arrangement, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, subject to federal laws and entitled to federal benefits. Those who live on the island do not pay federal taxes or vote for president. Their official voice in Washington is limited to a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Some believe that if a unified Puerto Rico were to present a single vision, Congress would have to respond. Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the island's non-voting delegate to the House and a member of the Popular Democratic Party, called on leaders of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party this week to reconsider participating in the committee.

The New Progressive Party's Pesquera told reporters this week that the party would not change its position.

"There is no atmosphere in this moment for a meeting," he said.

Statehood Activists Refuse To Join Commonwealth's Party

By Iván Román, Sentinel Staff Writer

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Supporters of the island's current commonwealth status are hosting the party. Pro-independence activists have their dancing shoes on.

But pro-statehood activists don't want to be seen anywhere near the dance floor.

So Gov. Sila Calderon may start the groove with fewer guests than she thought. This week, she is expected to appoint the members of the controversial Puerto Rico Unity and Consensus Commission, known as CUPCO by its Spanish acronym, just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the island's commonwealth political status.

The idea, she says, is for Puerto Rico's extremely divided ideological sectors to agree on how to go about reaching a change in political status -- whether it be statehood, independence or an "improved" commonwealth with more sovereignty.

The options so far include a plebiscite with Congress' approval, a White-House sponsored status commission and a constitutional convention.

But statehooders, who say there is nothing to celebrate this week, refuse to come to the table. They call it a "publicity stunt" set to delay true progress and favor the status quo. Instead of a local commission, Carlos Pesquera, president of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said the party presidents representing the three ideologies should meet with President Bush to request action from Washington.

They also cringe at any process that allows the possibility of continuing with the commonwealth status established in 1952, no matter how improved it is. To truly cease being a colony, they say, people must choose between statehood and independence. And differences within the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party about how far those changes should go and how much sovereignty the island should have makes statehooders nervous.

"The commonwealth reduces us to begging Congress and denies us the security of the flow of funds equal to the states," Pesquera said. "We've had 50 years of different attempts, and now we still don't know if they're talking about the commonwealth of Luis Muñoz Marin [the Commonwealth's founder] or the 'leftist' commonwealth of Sila Calderon. It's time for them to decide."

Trying to salvage this campaign promise, PDP leaders urged statehood activists who want to be involved to persuade their leaders to change their minds.

"Don't allow a leadership that is holding the statehood party hostage lead you to make the same mistakes of the past," said Rep. Anibal Acevedo Vila, the island's resident commissioner in Washington.

Ironically, it was a dispute among statehooders on whether they should boycott the 1967 plebiscite that forced the NPP's creation. In a heated discussion in a Condado hotel, cement magnate Luis Ferre insisted that the Statehood Party participate.

When its members said no, he left the room, started the NPP and, thanks to a bitter split of the PDP, was elected governor in 1968.

Now similar disputes over coming to the CUPCO table surface in a crisis-ridden NPP marked more recently by the expulsion of dissidents and the tug of war between more- and less-conservative factions. Historians could conclude that the stars seem to be aligning themselves to create the conditions for another split.

To NPP leaders worried about the empty statehood seats, Pesquera retorts, "He who lends himself to this effort is not a statehooder."

Ruben Berrios, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, offered to mediate, but Pesquera brushed him off and sent Calderon a strongly worded letter. Berrios still had hope. "No one should have a veto over a process that the majority wants," he said.

History shows that when each ideological "tribe" goes to Washington on its own to deal with status, it fails. The 8-year pro-statehood administration that ended in 2000 spent millions of dollars lobbying without Congress authorizing a plebiscite, much less committing to carrying out the results. The last time the U.S. Senate made a thoughtful and thorough attempt to deal with the issue was when the three presidents of the main political parties on the island forged a united front and approached Congress together in 1989.

Calderon said Friday that her invitation to Pesquera for initial talks Monday is still open. Neither Calderon nor Acevedo Vila would say whether they would discuss the status issue anyway if Pesquera and company ultimately stand them up.

"We'll cross that river when we come to it," Acevedo Vila said.

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