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Financial Times (FT.Com)

Threat To Its Constitution Fuels Debate On Puerto Rico's Future


July 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved. 

Advocates of political independence for Puerto Rico gathered this weekend in the hills of Cerro Maravilla to honour two pro-independence activists killed by the police in a gunfight 25 years ago.

The event coincides with a reignited debate about Puerto Rico's political status, brought on by the current trial of two men accused of kidnapping and murder.

Following a ruling by the US Supreme Court, the prosecution is asking for the death penalty. But Puerto Ricans are upset because the island banned the death penalty 74 years ago and reinforced the ban in its 1952 constitution.

With opinion surveys indicating little support for the reimposition of capital punishment, Puerto Rico's political leaders and legal groups have said that this demand for the death penalty, overriding the island's constitution, will force a re-examination of the island's political status.

Puerto Rico, an island of 4m people located in the north-eastern Caribbean, has a "commonwealth" relationship with the US. Puerto Ricans 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. The island's economy is supported by about $16bn (Euro4bn, GBP10bn) in federal funds each year.

The island's political parties have argued respectively for a reinforcement of the current status, becoming a state of the US and becoming politically independent. In referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998, Puerto Ricans voted to keep commonwealth status, eschewing the option of becoming a state of the union, with political independence coming a distant third.

Sila Calderon, Puerto Rico's governor, said that the strengthening of the status quo advocated by her Popular Democratic party would be one way of preventing federal regulations from overriding local laws. She said she was against the death penalty but would not intervene in the case.

"If we were a state, then we would get more respect for our local laws," said an official of the main opposition New Progressive party. "Ignoring our constitution has again shown that we need to end this ambivalent relationship with the US."

The death penalty is banned by several states of the US. However, legislation implemented in 1994 allows federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for several crimes in states and territories that have banned it.

The two men currently on trial are charged with the kidnapping and murder in 1998 of a businessman. The victim was allegedly killed when his captors learned that the police had been told of their demand for a $1m ransom.

A Puerto Rican judge had upheld arguments by defence attorneys that applying the death penalty would have violated Puerto Rico's constitution and its political status. However, this was overturned by a US circuit court on grounds that Puerto Rico is subject to federal laws. The US Supreme Court later supported this ruling.

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