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Status Panel To Address Puerto Rico's FutureTo Consider All Options

Task Force May Limit Puerto Rico’s Status Options

By Matthew Hay Brown

December 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico· Puerto Ricans could be pushed to choose between statehood and independence by a White House task force named to study the future of the island.

Those options, outlined two years ago by a Bush administration official, conspicuously leave out Puerto Rico's current commonwealth status, the 51-year-old political relationship that still is championed by the Popular Democratic Party of Gov. Sila M. Calderón and the legislative majority in this Caribbean U.S. territory.

The 16-member panel quietly named last week by President Bush to clarify options for the island's future political status is co-chaired by Rubén Barrales, White House director of intergovernmental affairs.

Barrales said President Bush was intent on settling the status of the island.

"The main thing to understand is the president doesn't do something like this for political reasons or just because it might sound good," he said on Thursday. "He's serious about it and has charged very serious people in his government to take a look at it."

In 2001, Barrales told a pro-statehood audience here that Bush was committed "to allowing Puerto Ricans to choose their own destiny" between sovereignty and joining the union.

"That's totally unacceptable," said Puerto Rico Sen. Roberto Prats Palerm, the Popular Democratic candidate in 2004 to represent the island in Congress as resident commissioner.

"There will be nothing more anti-democratic or anti-Hispanic than to rule out a relationship that has half a century of history, and has been supported consistently by the people of Puerto Rico as their choice of government."

But his opponent for resident commissioner, Luis Fortuño of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, characterized commonwealth as a transitional status unrecognized by the U.S. Constitution.

"The federal government can have a relationship with a state, or with a sovereign nation," he said. "At the end of the day, you really have two pathways, I believe: either statehood or independence."

Barrales on Thursday acknowledged his earlier comment, but said it was now "too early to say" whether the task force would include continuing the current status among the option for islanders to choose.

"At this point, we want to be objective and present options that are consistent with the Constitution, and we're going to do that," he said. "I think this process will bring to light what those options are."

The dispute over Puerto Rico's political relationship with the United States is the central organizing principle to politics in this island of 3.8 million, where each of the major parties defines itself by the status option it supports.

Polls generally show support for commonwealth and statehood running nearly even, with independence finishing a distant third. In the most recent vote, a non-binding plebiscite in 1998, islanders opted for the status quo over statehood.

Any change in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States would require the approval of Congress, which has not called a referendum on the issue since approving the commonwealth in 1952.

The task force, established by President Bill Clinton in December 2000, includes representatives of every Cabinet agency. The new memberswill meet for the first time in January.

"We'll make recommendations in terms of which options we think are viable," Barrales said. "In the end, obviously the Puerto Ricans will have to decide on the option they want to choose. We're hoping to be that neutral forum for discussion of the options and being able to lay it out there so that people can make a decision."

He said the panel would seek input from Puerto Rico's political parties, civic leaders, academics and other interested people. He said there was as yet no time frame for final recommendations, and no decision on what President Bush would do with them.

The United States took possession of this former Spanish colony after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Residents were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.

Under commonwealth status, islanders do not vote for president or pay federal income tax. They are subject to federal law and may be drafted into the U.S. military, but their voice in Washington is limited to the resident commissioner, a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

P.R. Task Force To Consider All Options

By Ian James of Associated Press Writer

December 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - A panel appointed by U.S. President George W. Bush will consider all options in studying whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state, an independent nation or remain a U.S. commonwealth, a leading member said Tuesday.

The 16 Bush administration officials named to the panel will meet early next month in Washington, White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs Director Ruben Barrales told The Associated Press.

"All options will be on the table for the task force to consider," Barrales, a panel co-chairman, said by phone from Washington.

"We're not going to rush into a decision or recommendation, but we're also going to move forward as quickly as possible," Barrales said. "We're bringing that issue back to the forefront."

The panel plans to seek input from all sides of the issue, he said. The Caribbean island's three political parties are divided by entrenched views: one for statehood, one for the current commonwealth status and one for independence.

Puerto Ricans narrowly rejected statehood in nonbinding referendums in 1993 and 1998. In the last vote, the status quo squeaked by with just over 50 percent.

"Ultimately the Puerto Ricans need to decide," Barrales said, calling the presidential task force "an opportunity for the people of Puerto Rico to express their ideas and their suggestions."

He declined to say whether the task force is likely to recommend one option or outline a process for Puerto Ricans to choose, saying much has yet to be decided.

Each Cabinet agency and the White House is represented on the task force, which former U.S. President Bill Clinton created in 2000 to clarify options for Puerto Rico's future.

Bush reactivated the panel in an executive order on Dec. 3. The task force is to report to the president as needed, at least once every two years.

The United States seized Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898. Its nearly 4 million people have been U.S. citizens since 1917 who can serve into the U.S. military but are barred from voting for president, have no voting representation in Congress and pay no federal income tax.

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