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What is Best For Puerto Rico, Future Up To Islanders, Middle Course has Served Island Well, Anything But Commonwealth, Not Ready For A Permanent Change


The State Of Puerto Rico

JULY 27, 2002
©Copyright 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All world rights reserved.

More than three million Americans — some 800,000 of them New Yorkers — have roots in Puerto Rico, but to many other Americans the island is an enigma, a place where they are likely to take their passports, which are not needed, but not a knowledge of Spanish, which often is. So it comes as little surprise that as Puerto Rico marked a milestone this week with official fanfare attended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a New York City contingent, there was little notice of the event on the mainland.

It was the 50th anniversary of the commonwealth, a status conferred on Puerto Rico to allow self-government and end its days as a colonial prize won by the United States in the Spanish-American War. And while cannons boomed and music and dance made for a festive party, the relationship being marked is showing signs of strain.

With its mix of limited benefits and obligations of United States citizenship, the commonwealth status has endured by default. Several nonbinding plebiscites the island has held over the years have failed to produce an acceptable alternative.

The ambivalence is significant in Puerto Rico, where political and civic involvement permeate the lives of its 3.8 million people. A thundering drum roll of rallies, car-mounted loudspeakers and personal canvassing regularly result in voter turnouts of about 80 percent. On an island of strong opinions, the status debate generates much shaking, sometimes even violence, but not much movement.

Puerto Ricans born on the island — like those born on the mainland — are United States citizens. Island residents pay Social Security taxes, but no federal income tax. They cannot vote in presidential elections and they have no vote on the floor of Congress. While the island has a Constitution and self-government, Washington controls matters involving defense, transportation, communication, immigration and foreign trade.

As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico retains its Spanish language and culture, even as it blends in American life. But the limits of the status quo — in which Puerto Rico does not get the full benefits of statehood nor the advantages of fuller sovereignty — have been blamed for creating a situation where the per capita income is lower than that of any state in the Union. Tax breaks given to American companies that set up shop overseas are being phased out for Puerto Rico, many companies have left and unemployment is in double digits. Anger against the United States found a flashpoint in recent years on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, used for target practice by the Navy. Tempers barely cooled when President Bush announced last year that the Navy would withdraw in May 2003.

Now Puerto Rico is looking for a new deal. Its governor, Sila Calderón, wants more sovereignty and economic opportunity, including control over foreign trade, but statehood advocates refuse to join her efforts to reach consensus on a proposal for change. So she is showing Puerto Rican political muscle elsewhere, heading a drive to register all eligible voters among Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, many of them in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida. All that will help to get the attention of members of Congress, who must approve any change for the commonwealth. But the first step, a re-examination of what is best for Puerto Rico, must begin there. And so far, that kind of introspection has been limited, tortured and inconclusive.


50 Years Of Commonwealth

JULY 25, 2002
©Copyright 2002 THE HARTFORD COURANT. All world rights reserved.

Fifty years ago today, Gov. Luis Munoz Marin proclaimed the birth of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, after residents of the Caribbean island approved a new constitution in a referendum.

Some Puerto Ricans would argue that little has changed regarding the island's status since the United States triumphed in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and occupied their nation. They contend that Puerto Rico, which was a colony of Spain for almost 400 years, has been a de facto colony of the United States since 1898.

Independentistas have not garnered much support in polls or in referendums during the past half-century. Still, the debate among those who favor independence, statehood or continuing the commonwealth arrangement will not end anytime soon.

Those who live in the commonwealth should ultimately decide their future without interference from Washington. For now, however, Puerto Ricans favor the status quo and have elected a governor from the party that supports continuation of the commonwealth arrangement, with some modifications.

Regardless of political differences, the importance of July 25, 1952, should not be underestimated, if only because of the contents of the commonwealth's founding document. The constitution that was born on that day is worthy of attention by all Americans because of its philosophical links to the U.S. Constitution.

The 1952 drafters borrowed heavily from the Founders, but built on the noble aspiration of freedom, democracy and equality to make them apply to their contemporary life.

In its preamble, Puerto Rico's constitution expresses "our fervor for education; our faith in justice; our devotion to the courageous, industrious and peaceful way of life; our fidelity to individual human values above and beyond social position, racial differences and economic interests ..."

Toward those ends, a bill of rights bans discrimination "on account of race, color, sex, birth, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas."

Here are a few other sections that ought to be familiar to most Americans:

"No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. There shall be complete separation of church and state.

"No law shall be made abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

"The right to life, liberty and the enjoyment of property is recognized as a fundamental right of man. The death penalty shall not exist. No person shall be deprived of his liberty or property without due process of law."

In other parts of the constitution wiretapping is banned, as is the imprisonment of children under the age of 16.

Much is written and said about the cultural and linguistic differences between Puerto Rico and the mainland. Too much is made of the fact that Puerto Rico goes its separate way by sending its own team to the Olympics and its own entry to the Miss Universe Pageant.

But these are inconsequential differences compared with the constitutional similarities between people who share common aspirations for a republican form of government having three coequal branches, all of which are "equally subordinate to the sovereignty of the people."


A Unique Status, A Rich Heritage, Puerto Rico Celebrates 50 Years

JULY 25, 2002
©Copyright 2002 THE MORNING CALL. All world rights reserved.

Today, Puerto Rico commemorates 50 years as a commonwealth. It's a time to recognize the rich heritage and proud contributions of Puerto Ricans in the Lehigh Valley since many came here in the 1940s and 1950s to work in farms and factories.

But, we dare not lose sight of the fact, described in a Morning Call special section Sunday, that there is no single mold for a Valley Puerto Rican; experiences and interests differ widely. There is pride in a common heritage, even as the debate about the home island continues: a commonwealth, an independent country or the 51st state? This is a question that should be revisited only as part of a vote by Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico's story is unique in American history. The United States gained the island with the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish-American War of 1898. U.S. citizenship was granted to Puerto Ricans in 1917. It was made a commonwealth in 1952 as a compromise between those pushing for independence and statehood.

In many ways, this middle course between independence and statehood has served the island well. The island governs itself and enjoys fiscal autonomy while the United States retains control of military defense, transportation, communications, immigration and foreign trade. Puerto Rico has one nonvoting representative in the U.S. House but no senators, and island residents can't vote for U.S. president. They pay no federal income tax, and can receive Social Security and federal welfare benefits. In addition, they serve in the military and are subject to drafts; Puerto Ricans first gave their lives for this country in World War I.

Latinos are the fastest growing minority in the Lehigh Valley and Puerto Ricans are the largest group among Latinos in the Valley and six surrounding counties, particularly in Allentown and Bethlehem. Though there still are relatively few Puerto Ricans in local government, a number of Puerto Rican personalities have made their mark on the Valley, including: Allentown City Council member Martin Velazquez III; south Bethlehem District Justice Nancy Matos-Gonzalez; Allentown School Board member Candido Garcia; Luis Ramos, chairman of the Allentown School District's Empowerment Team and a member of the state Board of Education; David Vazquez, principal of the Roberto Clemente Charter School in Allentown; and Wanda Velazquez, head of the Latin Alliance.

They're role models for a younger generation of Lehigh Valley Puerto Ricans, people who take pride in both their U.S. citizenship and their rich island heritage.

Anything But Commonwealth For Puerto Rico

David Medina

JULY 25, 2002
©Copyright 2002 THE HARTFORD COURANT. All world rights reserved.

If Puerto Ricans were designing a greeting card for the 50th anniversary of the island's status as a commonwealth of the United States, it would say: "Happy Birthday, Commonwealth. Drop Dead."

Yes, as Puerto Ricans applaud the transitory economic and political benefits achieved through commonwealth, even the Popular Democratic Party that promulgated the concept recognizes finally that, as is, it has run its course.

Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by law, they have no representation in Congress and they can't vote for president. They are subject to federal laws designed to protect U.S. business and military interests on the island.

A series of Washington appointees ran Puerto Rico from 1898 until 1952, when, under an agreement with the United States, the islanders established their own local government with a constitution and an elected governor as chief executive. The island's economy also became dependent on American corporations that paid no U.S. taxes to locate manufacturing plants there and thereby vastly expanded their profits.

The relationship helped Puerto Rico's economy grow much faster than its Caribbean rivals, but its per-capita income remained at less than half that of Mississippi, the poorest state.

Congress, however, repealed the tax breaks in 1996 and left nothing in their place, triggering a steady exodus of plants and jobs to places like Singapore. The island, moreover, remains saddled with federal laws that prevent it from seeking other means of relief.

Naturally, crime rose. Those who could, fled to Hartford and other U.S. cities. And Puerto Ricans began asking: "If commonwealth can't put bread on the table, who needs it?"

So, even as she launches a yearlong celebration of commonwealth, Gov. Sila Calderon of the PDP plans to appoint a commission soon to come up with a mechanism for replacing it, such as a binding plebiscite or a constitutional assembly.

The commission would consist of statehooders, independentistas and PDP members who want more sovereignty to expand the economy, but not a complete break with the United States.

Increased sovereignty, though vaguely defined, would include the right to sign direct trade agreements with foreign countries and the repeal of a federal provision that requires Puerto Rico to transport its products on U.S. flagships only, the high cost of which makes the products unmarketable.

Statehooders, reluctant to participate in the status commission, say Ms. Calderon is merely paying lip service to widespread dissatisfaction with commonwealth. They can't deny, however, that the move embodies a sea change in her party's philosophy.

For 50 years, the PDP lulled its followers into believing that commonwealth was a partnership, not political subordination - the best deal anyone could get out of the United States. The rhetoric worked fine until the glue that held the partnership together - U.S. tax breaks - gave way. Now the party is cautiously weaning its followers off its old principles and redirecting them to push for more self-government.

Widespread frustration with commonwealth erupted in 1999 when a stray bomb fired during Navy training exercises in Vieques killed a local resident. With few exceptions, Puerto Ricans all over the world rose up in protest and forced the president of the United States to call a halt to about 60 years of bombings by May 2003.

Aside from the insensitivity of live bombing so near a populated area, the outrage over Vieques also stemmed from the fact that the tiny offshore island would be ripe for economic expansion if the Navy just got out of the way.

The Vieques experience showed Puerto Ricans that when they act in unison, the rest of America responds, if reluctantly. They haven't been quite the same since then. A unified plan to change status would probably yield similar results and should be pursued aggressively before the island's economy erodes further.

Paying tribute to commonwealth may be akin to the Indians reveling over the arrival of Christopher Columbus. As U.S. companies enriched themselves, Puerto Rico's ability to grow and thrive became increasingly limited. But you can't ignore that many lives improved during commonwealth's heyday.

So let all Puerto Ricans join hands, smile for the cameras and wish commonwealth a heartfelt happy birthday. Let them also be firm about getting rid of commonwealth status without making mainland Americans seem like bloodsucking imperialist pigs.

The switch to a better political relationship will go a lot more smoothly.

David Medina is a Courant editorial writer.

Puerto Rico Considers Its Ties To The US


JULY 24, 2002
©Copyright 2002 Financial Times - All world rights reserved.

Foreign dignitaries who accept an invitation to a Puerto Rican party this week will find themselves spectators to a new round in a domestic dispute that has consumed their hosts for the past 50 years.

Sila Calderon, Puerto Rico 's governor, will include salsa music and pop concerts in Thursday's celebrations of the island's constitution that gives it a quasi-colonial relationship with the US.

Mrs Calderon supports the current "commonwealth" link with the US, and her effort to combine the celebrations with the creation of an all-party forum to discuss the island's political status has been attacked by the opposition.

"The administration is wasting millions of dollars to celebrate the fact that Puerto Rico is the world's oldest colony whose citizens are not allowed to fully participate in the government structure that rules them," said Carlos Pesquera, leader of the main opposition New Progressive party that wants the island to become a state of the Union.

Under the "commonwealth" relationship, the 3.9m people of the US possession in the northeastern Caribbean vote in presidential primary elections, but not in US general elections. They have one non-voting representative in Washington, and do not pay federal taxes.

Puerto Rico has control over its internal affairs but the US is responsible for foreign relations, commerce and immigration. Although Puerto Ricans fight in the US army, the island sends its own teams to the Olympic Games.

Rejecting Mr Pesquera's attack, Mrs Calderon said that the constitution is being celebrated "with pride" in the island's political status . The commonwealth relationship has survived because it grants Puerto Ricans US citizenship, and has allowed them to retain their culture, she claimed.

"It is known that commonwealth status is a marvelous relationship both for Puerto Rico as well as the US, and we speak very proudly of its benefits."

Support for the status quo traditionally has been stronger than that for statehood . In a referendum in 1952, 80 per cent supported commonwealth. The last referendum in 1998 saw statehood getting 46.5 per cent support. Traditionally, the Puerto Rico Independence party has received an average of 5 per cent in referendums and local elections.

However, the Independence party sees merit in Mrs Calderon's committee. "This is a good sign," said Fernando Martin, a senator for the party. "The governor should have started this earlier. It is potentially good and we will participate."

In rejecting statehood and independence, supporters of the status quo have argued that the island would be the poorest state of the union. The economy is kept afloat by federal funding that reached $17.8bn last year, 16 per cent more than 2000. However, government officials said that this is the lowest per capita federal funding in the US.

"The US Congress will not entertain the prospect of a small, Spanish-speaking state, thousands of miles off its coast," said an official of the incumbent Popular Democratic party. "Legislators will consider it too much trouble to reformat seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. So we will be better off enhancing our current status rather than trying to force reluctant hands in Washington."

Statehood supporters counter that it is unfair for Puerto Ricans to obtain federal benefits without paying for them. Although Puerto Rico would be a very poor state when admitted, statehood would bring economic opportunities that would improve Puerto Ricans' lives. "The same thing was said about Hawaii, and look how well they are doing now," said an NPP functionary.

The US Congress has final determination in any changes to Puerto Rico 's status . Mrs Calderon is hoping that the all-party committee can agree a common position that will get reaction from Congress. The signs are not promising.

James Hansen (R-Utah), chairman of the US House Committee on Resources that has jurisdiction over Puerto Rican affairs, said that he will not raise the issue of Puerto Rico 's status this year. "Puerto Ricans are not ready to make a big decision such as moving towards independence or statehood ," he said.

Mrs Calderon has sent invitations to presidents and prime ministers from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and other officials including Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York. If they attend, they may not meet Mr Pesquera.

"We are not going to be a part of this publicity stunt," the NPP leader said. "We will not involve ourselves in agendas that seek a far-off solution to the status dilemma which will only set us back."

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