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Albuquerque Journal

Puerto Rico Seeks Help Of Congress On Future Status

Bill Hume, Editorial Page Editor

August 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Albuquerque Journal. All rights reserved.

So, what to do about Puerto Rico?

Taken in battle in the United States' last war of the 19th century, Puerto Rico is a possession, a colony no, make that "a commonwealth" of the United States, stuck between Hispanola and the Virgin Islands, on the northeastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

There are parallels between Puerto Rico and New Mexico. It was the Spanish American War performance of New Mexico Hispanics, who made up more than 30 percent of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, that helped convince many in Washington that the citizens of the former Spanish colony had in fact become loyal American citizens. In 1899, Roosevelt made a speech at a Rough Riders reunion in Las Vegas, N.M., in which he promised to help New Mexico become a state. Additionally, New Mexico was the first and only state to enter the union with a Hispanic majority.

Puerto Ricans have served with distinction in all American conflicts since the island became a U.S. possession.

New Mexico gained a new link to Puerto Rico last year, when Puerto Rican Guillermo Figueroa was named music director of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He also serves as music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony. That connection could yet lead to greater contact between New Mexico and "La Isla del Encanto" (The Isle of Enchantment).

*Should Puerto Rico , population 3.8 million, be admitted as a state? After all, Guadalupe and Martinique, in the Lesser Antilles southeast of Puerto Rico , are the equivalent of "states" in France. Hawaii, in the Pacific, is a U.S. state.

*Should Puerto Rico be granted its independence? After all, we granted independence to Cuba and to the Philippines.

*Should Puerto Rico remain as a commonwealth the status under which it has existed for 50 years as of last July? After all, there is some tangible tradeoff in having citizenship along with immunity from personal income taxes, even if one has no voting representation in Congress and can't vote for the president.

Puerto Rico has held several referendums on statehood vs. independence vs. commonwealth in recent years, but the results have been muddied by the imprecision of the choices, according to spokesmen for a group seeking a new referendum . "None of the above" gained slightly more than 50 percent of the vote in the last such referendum .

Consequently, the American Veterans' Committee for Puerto Rico Self - Determination is advocating for a new, more precise form of referendum . They call on Congress to pass a law pre-authorizing Puerto Rican statehood , with the terms and conditions clearly stated, and pre-authorizing Puerto Rican independence, with that alternative's terms and conditions clearly stated, and spelling out the long-term conditions and prognosis for continued commonwealth status .

Conducted under the authority of such a congressional mandate, a referendum on the future of Puerto Rico would be a binding choice among defined alternatives not an exercise in political shadow- boxing.

"Puerto Ricans eat, sleep and fight status ," said Abelardo L. Valdez, a Washington attorney working with the American Veterans' Committee in seeking U.S. Hispanic support for the congressional proposal above. "Tensions are mounting."

Valdez, together with Radames (Rudy) A. Torruella and retired Air Force Gen. Orlando Llenza, were in Albuquerque recently bringing their message to a convention of the American G.I. Forum, the largest U.S. Hispanic veterans organization. Retired Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca of Albuquerque is also on the board of the American Veterans' Committee for Puerto Rico Self - Determination .

The economy of Puerto Rico is stagnating, in part because of the uncertainty about the island's future status . Per capita income is 40 percent that of Mississippi. Some 3 million Puerto Ricans now live on the mainland.

Some Republicans fear that Puerto Rico would be a Democratic state, since the majority of U.S. Hispanics are Democrats. Valdez said that wasn't necessarily the case. Local politics are dominated by local parties, most organized around partisanship for one of Puerto Rico 's status alternatives. "It's up for grabs" whether Puerto Ricans would be Democrats or Republicans, he said.

Seeking a clear congressional delineation and authorization for the main alternatives in Puerto Rico 's future brings up yet another New Mexico connection. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, whose chairman is Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is assigned the duty of handling Puerto Rico matters.

The island became a U.S. possession in battle 104 years ago. It has been a commonwealth, ostensibly more than a colony but considerably less than a state, for 50 years. Its current status is a vestige of an older more overtly imperialistic era in American policy. It is time, in the opinion of the American Veterans' Committee and the people of Puerto Rico, to resolve the future status of Puerto Rico once and for all.

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