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Orlando Sentinel

Troops Go to War But Not to Polls

by Ray Quintanilla, Columnist

June 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- We've all heard the military slogan: "We're looking for a few good men."

Here's one you may not have heard: "There goes another Puerto Rican off to war, and he can't vote for the person sending him into battle."

It's not much of a military recruiting tool. But it raises a thorny issue that's playing out on this tiny island, and it's getting some attention in the gubernatorial race here of late.

Consider that not one of the thousands of island residents being sent off to war shares all the rights of those whom they are defending in Iraq. They certainly don't have the same rights as their comrades in arms, because most live on the mainland.

The candidates for governor of Puerto Rico know as much, which is why most are gingerly stepping around this issue or just wanting it to go away.

Because of Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, the men and women marching into battle and defending democracy cannot legally cast a ballot in a U.S. general election, even if they are United States citizens.

Ruben Berrios, who favors independence for Puerto Rico, has made his opposition to the Iraq war a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign. Though he's a longshot, the issue has struck a chord in the barrios and his campaign is picking up steam, he says.

The fact is, more than 200,000 Puerto Rican soldiers have served in this country's wars since World War II.

Four Puerto Ricans have received the Medal of Honor, and nearly 2,000 have died on duty. This includes 16 of Puerto Rican descent in the current operations in Iraq.

The death rate for the island's soldiers is higher than that in 44 states.

A few days ago, Berrios raised this question for debate: How many more Puerto Rican soldiers need to die?

There have been no concrete links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime -- and no weapons of mass destruction, Berrios continued.

Sila Calderon, Puerto Rico's governor, quickly reaffirmed her backing of the war, telling a local newspaper, "When a president officially declares war on a country, it's the duty of all citizens to respond to this declaration." She failed to mention that presidents don't declare war.

Who knows if anything will come from the debate here.

But there is still hope it will resonate in Washington, D.C., where some leaders want to give the island's residents the right to determine once and for all whether Puerto Rico should become independent or a state.

Let's hope this can get a fair hearing in Washington and important questions are asked, such as:

Are we sending Puerto Rican soldiers off to war with one less bullet in their clip? Is that fair to all of the troops?

Why aren't President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, both proponents of the war in Iraq, directly addressing this issue?

And why haven't those in Congress acted to remedy this unfairness by moving ahead on a status vote for Puerto Rico?

It's the least they could do to honor the memory of patriotic Puerto Ricans who have died in battle.

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