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Anniversary Hailed, Criticized, Torn 3 Ways On Big Day, Celebration Splits & Divides Puerto Ricans On Future
Puerto Ricans Hail, Criticize Anniversary
By Iván Román and Matthew Hay Brown
JULY 26, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Thousands cheered Gov. Sila Calderón on Thursday as she raised the Puerto Rican flag and cannons blasted to mark the 50th anniversary of the island's commonwealth status.
Calderón then pledged to do whatever it takes to "perfect" the commonwealth and secure more sovereign powers for the island.
Her promises came as thousands of pro-independence activists on the opposite side of the island criticized the commonwealth as a "lie" meant to disguise Puerto Rico's colonial status.
On the same Capitol steps where former Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín raised the flag July 25, 1952, to start Puerto Rico down this political path, Calderón told about 50,000 people that the commonwealth status she defends so ardently needs changes. But she drew the line at giving up Puerto Rican culture or the use of Spanish.
"There can't be a more noble, more just, more legitimate or more true purpose than the aspirations and desire of a people to fully exercise their democracy and self determination, without having to trade in their national identity," she said.
In San Juan.
Under a hot midday sun, before huge U.S. and Puerto Rican flags draping the length of the three-story Capitol, Calderón extolled the virtues of the island's "partnership" with the United States that has secured economic progress while allowing Puerto Ricans to keep being who they are. Speaker after speaker called the island a distinct "nation," sharply contrasting the pro-assimilation message common in official speeches during pro-statehood administrations.
Independentistas decry status
But those speaking to thousands of independentistas who packed the southern coastal town of Guánica, site of the U.S. invasion in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, called the commonwealth association an economic, social and political failure that has relegated Puerto Ricans to second-class status in the United States.
"Puerto Rico is the last great colony on Earth," longtime Independence Party President Ruben Berrios shouted as supporters roared.
Waving Puerto Rican flags and political signs, they thronged the streets and sidewalks along the Bay of Guánica to hear speeches and music.
Amid placards calling for an end to the practice bombing on Vieques and demanding the U.S. Navy leave Puerto Rico, one woman carried a message for the White House.
"President Bush," her sign read in English, "Isn't 104 years of colonialism enough shame for the United States?"
From the stage set up by the beach where U.S. soldiers came ashore 104 years ago Thursday, PIP Vice President María de Lourdes Santiago said those celebrating the commonwealth's anniversary at the Capitol were deceiving themselves. "They are like slaves, dancing to the sound of their own chains," she said.
Unlike in the past when PDP leaders claimed the status problem was solved in 1952, now many agree that the commonwealth is outgrowing itself, and Puerto Rico needs to start taking the next step in its political future.
But how far to go, in what direction, and how quickly are the issues stirring intense disputes. The stalemate could be seen even on the roads Thursday. On Highway 52, the main route from San Juan to the south of the island, shuttles showing the PIP's green-and-white banner heading south to Guánica passed school buses carrying American flag-waving pro-commonwealth revelers going north to the Capitol.
"With commonwealth, our destiny is to grow," Rep. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the island's resident commissioner in Washington told the crowd packed in front of the Capitol. "Not to the left, nor to the right, but forward is where we're heading."
In the massive feel-good session that started Calderón's speech, she lauded the Spanish language, performers such as actress Rita Moreno and mambo king Tito Puente, thousands of Puerto Rican veterans who have died since World War I, and sports stars such as baseball great Roberto Clemente and boxer Tito Trinidad.
And she claimed the laundry list reflected the strength of the commonwealth, a status forged by Muñoz Marín and local leaders with Washington's approval after Congress refused to consider granting statehood or independence. The status established a high-degree of self-government and fiscal autonomy for the island, but left matters such as defense, customs, immigration, foreign affairs and trade under U.S. control.
Although they pay Social Security taxes, Puerto Ricans on the island don't pay federal income tax. They do not vote for president and have only one nonvoting representative in Congress but are subject to the military draft.
'Statehood would wipe us off the Earth'
Decked in red and white, the PDP's colors, industrial consultant Gisela Fournier cheered the status she thought avoided what she called the extremes of statehood or independence.
"Statehood would wipe us off the Earth as a people, as who we are," said Fournier, 55, sporting a "Respect Commonwealth" button on her lampshade-type hat. "Within the commonwealth, I feel independent and free. We all know we need to develop it more, to make it better, and we can do that through consensus."
At the pro-independence rally by the Caribbean Sea, Berríos also called for consensus. He joined in Calderón's effort this week to form a Committee of Puerto Rican Unity and Consensus aimed at agreeing on a way to achieve change and pressuring Congress to deal with the matter.
But pro-statehood New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera refuses to join the committee. Calderón appointed a group to mediate in hopes of luring Pesquera to dialogue, but he still said no, calling the whole thing a "publicity stunt" by the governor.
"If we speak as one people, they will have to listen," Berrios said in his appeal to Pesquera. "And if they hear us, they will have to respond."
Flanked by representatives from 14 countries, speakers at the Capitol read congratulatory messages from several senators and representatives in Congress. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sat next to Calderón during the ceremony, read a greeting from President Bush, who praised Puerto Ricans for their "invaluable contributions to the cultural diversity, economic strength and proud heritage of our nation."
Puerto Ricans Torn 3 Ways On Big Day
JULY 25, 2002
'Isla ma, flor cautiva, para ti quiero tener libre tu suelo, sola tu estrella. . . ." This is "Verdeluz," a song by Puerto Rican composer and singer Antonio Cabn Vale (El Topo), which captures the deep, historic, painful longing of the people of his island for a sovereign Puerto Rico .
"Island of mine," says the poet, although much more beautifully in Spanish, "captive flower, I wish your land may be free, your star may be lone. . . ."
Today, when Puerto Rico arrives at the 50th anniversary of its status as a U.S. commonwealth, the poet's elusive dream seems farther off than it ever was, only a faint, flickering light on the horizon.
Half a century after the ruling Partido Popular Democrtico helped establish the island's "special relation" with the U.S., Puerto Ricans are as divided as ever among commonwealth, statehood and independence.
"It doesn't matter what we want. Our future as a nation depends on Washington," said Manuel Morn, 30, who was born in San Juan and has lived in Astoria, Queens, since 1985. "Congress has the last word, it always does."
And even though Gov. Sila Caldern is throwing a huge party today outside of the island's Capitol to joyously commemorate the commonwealth, thousands of her compatriots see no reason for celebration.
"We demand our right to be independent," said Marisol Corretjer, a grandmother who is one of the leaders of the Partido Nacionalista on the island.
The independentistas, those who favor a Puerto Rico independent from the U.S., will hold a gathering of their own. But they will not be celebrating.
They will meet in the southern town of Guanica, the port of entry for the U.S. soldiers who invaded the island on July 25, 1898, and took it from Spain. They do not want to forget the day their country became a U.S. possession.
A colony by any other name is still a colony, pro-independence advocates say. Which, according to a 2000 UN resolution, is exactly what their country has been since 1898, even if it is officially called a commonwealth.
Ironically, pro-statehooders share with independentistas the belief that Puerto Rico 's colonial status is unacceptable, although they offer a totally different solution: They want the island to become a full-fledged state. Cool to statehood on Hill The second political force in the country after commonwealth, the estadistas have encountered some formidable roadblocks. For one thing, Congress has never been enthusiastic about a new state of poor, Spanish- speaking people.
"The state of Puerto Rico would have two senators and six representatives," says community activist Alice Cardona, who was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in Woodside, Queens, for 20 years. "The South doesn't like it. They are fearful it would erode their power."
Independence consistently comes out as the least popular option in every island's opinion poll. But to think this means Puerto Ricans will renounce their language, culture and history is a big mistake.
Yet many Puerto Ricans, despite the talent and energy of their people, have been convinced during years of dependency that their island cannot make it on its own.
"I'd like to see Puerto Rico free," said Betsy Dvila, who has lived in Astoria for 40 years, echoing a very common sentiment. "But I am afraid it would become another impoverished Third World nation."
The deep, painful longing for a Puerto Rico libre lives on in the hearts of its people, however tarnished by insecurity and fear.
Commonwealth Celebration Splits Puerto Ricans
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
JULY 25, 2002
PHOTO: Lynne Sladky / AP
Fireworks over San Juan Bay paint the sky Wednesday night as the celebration begins for the 50th anniversary of the island commonwealth's constitution.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Half a century ago, at the Capitol set behind a massive fort overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, this island's single star was raised alongside the U.S. flag for the first time since U.S. troops invaded in 1898.
Inside the majestic structure, 92 delegates ratified a U.S.-sanctioned Constitution that consecrated new laws and created a union between both lands by making Puerto Rico a commonwealth, referred to here as Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) -- the Free Associated State.
But when festivities are held today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ELA, only half of the population will be celebrating.
''It's a shame that this government is celebrating a date that really stands for a smoke screen for U.S. colonialism,'' said Manuel Rodríguez Orellana, 54, a leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. ``Colonialism, of course, is not just illegal, but it is immoral.''
Five decades after the U.S.-Puerto Rico union, the island's status remains a thorny issue that reaches beyond intellectual debate and tears at the collective heart of a population divided into three primary camps -- those who support the status quo, those who would like the island to be incorporated as U.S. state, and those who favor full sovereignty.
As the government and its supporters gather in the capital to honor the anniversary, independentistas -- promoters of independence -- will have an anti-commonwealth rally in Guanica, a small municipality on the southwest coast where U.S. troops landed on July 25, 1898.
''The purpose of our protest is to bring out the fact that this is an invasion and not a celebration,'' Rodríguez said.
Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado, president of the commission overseeing commemorative events, said the celebration is about recognizing a fruitful partnership that remains in effect.
``The important thing about this is that we have managed to achieve three things -- sustained economic development, a permanent union with the United States and a cultural identity and idiosyncrasy as a
people,'' Mercado said. ``Sometimes, that is not understood by the people who are far away, but it is lived by those of us here.''
Commonwealth status did achieve a degree of internal administrative freedom for Puerto Rico.
Somewhat modeled after the U.S. Constitution, Puerto Rico's Constitution provides for three branches of government: the executive, the legislative -- consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives -- and the judicial branch. The island is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a delegate who has a voice, but no vote except in committees.
As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are subject to military service and most federal laws, and are also eligible for food and health benefits. But they cannot vote in presidential elections -- though they do in primaries -- and don't pay federal income tax on locally generated earnings.
Many who prefer statehood said that although the current arrangement has functioned, they would like to have the benefits that come with full membership in the nation with which they are affiliated.
''It's a great one-way deal, but we have no power,'' said Samuel Chico, 27, who works for the San Juan municipality. ``We're good enough to fight in a war for the United States, but not good enough to vote for the president. If we were a state, that wouldn't happen.''
Few Puerto Ricans oppose sovereignty, but many say it is unrealistic.
''It would be great to be our own nation, but I haven't heard of a viable plan to keep us from becoming another Third World country,'' said Chico. ``I don't think it's possible.''
''The idea that independence is impossible is only stimulated by those who don't want it,'' said Rodríguez, adding that autonomy would cut expenses for the United States and let the island establish its own trade agreements and implement a flexible economy.
Puerto Ricans already have voted to determine their political status, but the results have not provoked definitive action by the U.S. Congress.
In the first plebiscite, in 1967, about 60 percent of the population voted in favor of remaining a commonwealth, while statehood received 39 percent and independence got 1 percent of the vote.
In a 1993 referendum, support for commonwealth dropped to 48.6 percent, for statehood rose to 46.3 percent and independence got 4.4 percent. In another nonbinding referendum, in 1998, the majority opted for ''none of the above'' among five choices, including the three most prevalent.
With the issue still percolating, Gov. Sila Calderón has reached out to the leaders of the statehood and independence parties in an effort to discuss the island's political future and lobby Washington as a united front. But she has yet to receive a firm commitment from opponents.
During a public address today, following the symbolic raising of both flags at the Capitol, Calderón will talk about consensus-building.
''We want to agree to discuss our disagreements,'' said Mercado. ``What has hurt us historically with Washington is the different voices that go there saying they speak for the people. The governor wants to convey a single, united voice.''
Puerto Ricans Divided On Future
Nature of relations with U.S. at issue
JULY 25, 2002
As their island to commemorates the 50th anniversary of its relationship with the United States today, Rockland's Puerto Rican population - like many in the wider diaspora - remain conflicted as to the future of that relationship.
The debate centers on three divergent opinions: that Puerto Rico continue as a commonwealth or free-associated state; that it seek its independence; or that it become the 51st state of the union.
Walter Zayas, a member of Latinos Unidos and the Hispanic Coalition, said he didn't necessarily see the anniversary as a reason to celebrate. "Puerto Rico has a history of 500 years," Zayas said. "Compare 500 years of history with 50 years of occupation."
Olga Diaz has lived in Haverstraw for the past 36 years, since she moved from Puerto Rico.
"In my opinion, it should stay the same," Diaz said.
She doesn't like the option of becoming an independent nation because she says Puerto Rico needs the United States' support. However, she doesn't want the island to become the 51st state.
One major drawback she sees is that "the poor people in Puerto Rico will have to pay taxes to the government on their homes."
The issue is complex, but many of Rockland's 10,681 Puerto Rican residents believe that whatever decision is made, it must give island residents the right to vote in federal elections.
Living in a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and have most of the benefits of their citizenship, including federal aid, although it is less than that allocated to each of the 50 states.
The residents can serve in the U.S. military. The island's elected governor, Silda Calderon, must answer to the federal government, as any other state governor must. However, the island's residents do not pay federal taxes.
This apparent disparity has fueled the division among Puerto Ricans. In past referendums, Puerto Ricans on the island have chosen to keep their current status .
Emma Concepcion, a Haverstraw resident for the past 50 years who was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, said she also wants things to stay the way they are.
She said she fears that if the island becomes independent, it will be subject to the many political growing pains of young democracies. Ultimately, the poor people are the ones who will suffer, she said.
However, her husband, Pedro Cruz, disagrees with her.
"I want it to become the fifty-first state," Cruz said, because "there will be more benefits. We will be better protected ... we are small; we will be more secure."
American-born Anita Alfonso, 19, of Haverstraw grew up hearing her Puerto Rican parents discuss the issue. "Now that Puerto Rico is dependent upon the United States, there is no going back," she said.
She said it is unfair that "they can be drafted in the Army, yet they cannot vote for the president that's going to put them there."
Diaz, meanwhile, said she wants other Puerto Ricans to be able to vote for their president, as she has done in the past "with pride."
"The government here has helped me a lot," she said. "I can't complain about this country."