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Associated Press Newswires

Puerto Ricans Weigh Progress And Conflicts Of 50 Years As U.S. Commonwealth


JULY 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved.

MANATI, Puerto Rico (AP) - As a boy, Manuel Salgado Lugo labored barefoot in sugarcane fields, gathering bunches of felled cane and hefting them onto oxcarts.

Today, the cane fields have mostly disappeared under modern subdivisions, supermarkets and pharmaceutical factories. New tanks to recycle chemical waste rise next to the ruins of a sugar mill.

Salgado, 73, notes with pride he no longer has to live in a dirt-floor hovel or sleep on a hammock of burlap sacks. "In those times, we weren't worth anything," he says, chewing tobacco on a corner in Manati, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of San Juan, the capital.

Puerto Rico 's transformation is a product of a unique, lucrative and conflicted relationship with the United States, which took the Caribbean island from Spain in 1898.

The island's constitution, drafted by its leaders and approved by the U.S. president and Congress, took effect July 25, 1952, establishing Puerto Rico as a "Free Associated State," or commonwealth.

Critics say the semiautonomous government is neither entirely free nor really associated with the United States. Some argue Puerto Rico is simply an exploited colony.

Salgado, a retiree who sells lottery tickets and rolled tobacco on a street corner, says he owes a great deal to Luis Munoz Marin, who was elected governor in 1948 and ushered in the commonwealth.

"Everyone has a house, furniture, a car," Salgado says, "thanks to God and Don Luis."

With U.S. help, the government bought cane fields around Manati and elsewhere and gave small plots to poor laborers. On one, Salgado built his concrete-block house and planted mango and banana trees.

Salgado's son and daughter learned to read, a skill he never acquired. Salgado repaired signs on highways until he retired, and now receives a monthly Social Security payment of dlrs 312.

"Under the Free Associated State, life has been good," he says.

But Puerto Ricans remain deeply divided over their relationship with the United States.

Commonwealth supporters led by Governor Sila Calderon will celebrate outside the seaside Capitol to mark the constitution's anniversary Thursday. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, the small independence movement will hold a somber gathering in Guanica at the spot where U.S. soldiers invaded on July 25, 1898, to wrest control from Spain.

For the first 50 years, Washington appointed Puerto Rico 's governors and provided little aid while poverty reigned on sugar, tobacco, coffee and pineapple plantations.

But after World War II, Puerto Rico started "Operation Bootstrap" with U.S. tax breaks, reorienting its economy from farming to manufacturing. Laborers left for the mainland United States in an exodus promoted by the island's government to ease unemployment.

There were outbursts of resistance to U.S. ties.

In 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate President Harry S. Truman in Washington. In 1954, nationalists attacked the U.S. House of Representatives, shooting from the spectators' gallery and wounding five congressmen. The Armed Forces for National Liberation was involved in 130 bombings in the United States that killed six people and wounded dozens from 1974 to 1983.

Political violence has faded as Puerto Rico has developed into one of the wealthiest places in Latin America, contrasting with Spain's other former Caribbean colonies. The Dominican Republic languishes in poverty, while communist Cuba blunts its poverty by striving to ensure free education, health care and modest food allowances for all in a political system that denies some individual liberties.

In Puerto Rico , U.S. influence is evident along wide highways lined with malls, Burger Kings and billboards advertising Coors Light beer. High-rise condominiums tower over San Juan's beaches.

Yet on weekends in Old San Juan, families still gather under a spreading banyan tree to play traditional bomba and plena music, swaying as they strum the rhythm on dried gourds called guiros. Spanish remains the language of choice.

In some ways, being Puerto Rican is to live between two worlds. About 4 million Puerto Ricans live on the island while 3.4 million more reside in mainland states such as New York and Florida.

Puerto Ricans were made American citizens in 1917 and many fought and died for the U.S. military, but islanders can't vote for president and have no vote in Congress. Puerto Ricans pay no U.S. income taxes but receive more than dlrs 13 billion in federal funds annually, including veterans' and other benefits.

"This is my first flag," 56-year-old retiree Ana Rivera says, motioning to a U.S. flag.

Others say they are Puerto Ricans first, though glad to be U.S. citizens.

But some argue the relationship scars the psyche.

"We are neither here nor there," complains Carlos Pesquera, leader of the New Progressive Party, which wants the island to become the 51st U.S. state.

The governor, on the other hand, is pushing for even more autonomy, saying Puerto Ricans "have come along building our own destiny."

In Washington, the debate over the island's status provokes little interest, with many in Congress saying it's a decision for Puerto Ricans. Commonwealth supporters narrowly outvoted islanders who want statehood in a heated plebiscite in 1998.

Some U.S. legislators express frustration at Puerto Ricans' opposition to U.S. Navy bombing exercises on the outlying island of Vieques, where 9,100 civilians live. But President George W. Bush has pledged the Navy will stop next year.

Meanwhile, tax incentives that once lured U.S. companies are expiring, raising questions about the island's economic future. Unemployment officially stands at 12 percent but private economists say it's nearer 25 percent.

In Manati, welfare recipients pick up benefits at an old tobacco warehouse.

The colonial-era plaza where families strolled in Salgado's youth is now roamed by drug addicts and drunks, and Salgado keeps a .38-caliber pistol hidden under his guayabera shirt.

He says the young people driving past in Japanese cars with stereos blaring don't understand how hard it used to be. "There was no light, no water, no nothing," he says.

Salgado isn't particularly grateful to the United States, however, saying "it had to give help" for using Puerto Rico and its laborers and soldiers.

"All of Puerto Rico belongs to the United States," he says. "They don't give something for nothing."

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