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Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rico's Commonwealth Could Slip Away Some See Signs That Washington Will Seek A Vote On Statehood Or Independence

By Matthew Hay Brown, Sentinel Staff Writer

July 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- As Puerto Rico prepares to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of commonwealth government today, some here say that Washington is signaling an end to the island's unique relationship with the United States.

Statehood advocates and independentistas have been trumpeting what they say is a growing bipartisan consensus on the mainland that commonwealth -- the preferred status of the ruling party here, and the one consistently favored by referendum voters -- is only a temporary stage in the island's development.

The bitter divide over political status is the central organizing principle to politics in this territory of 3.9 million, where each of the three major parties defines itself by the option it supports. But Washington, which approved commonwealth in 1952, has been reluctant to revisit the issue.

That may now be changing. First, President Bush reactivated a task force last year to clarify legal options for the island and appointed as co-chair a White House adviser who once said Puerto Ricans eventually would have to choose sovereignty or statehood.

Then, Democratic challenger John Kerry released a position paper this spring that said the ultimate political status of the island "remains undetermined," and the party's platform committee approved language this month calling residents here "disenfranchised American citizens."

Islanders are subject to federal law, but do not vote for president or pay federal income taxes. Their voice in Congress is limited to a single, nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives.

"My belief is that Washington has come to realize both on the Democratic and the Republican side that 106 years is enough," says Luis Fortuno, the island's pro-statehood New Progressive Party candidate for Congress, referring to the period the United States has held this Caribbean territory since invading in 1898. "And that the more time passes, the more complicated this will get."

But Anibal Acevedo Vila, the gubernatorial candidate of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, says he has separate assurances from both task force co-chairman Ruben Barrales and Kerry that neither would take the status away from Puerto Rico while it remains the most popular option.

"If we Puerto Ricans keep allowing Washington politicians to bring up the status issue every four years just to raise money in Puerto Rico and get political advantage, we will never get a solution of this issue," Acevedo Vila said. Polls here generally show support for commonwealth and statehood running nearly even, with independence finishing a distant third. In each of three nonbinding plebiscites, the most recent in 1998, islanders opted to maintain the status quo over statehood. Any change would require the approval of Congress.

President Clinton established the task force to clarify legal options for Puerto Rico shortly before he left office. Bush revived the panel last year and appointed new members. Fortuno says Washington is recognizing that under the U.S. Constitution, commonwealth is not a permanent status.

"There are two ways in which the federal government can relate to jurisdictions," he said. "One is with a state of the union, and the other one is with a sovereign state."

While Fortuno argues for statehood, Manuel Rodriguez Orellana calls that option "an impossibility."

"What that would entail is the United States becoming a multinational state -- not one nation under God, but two nations under God," said Rodriguez, the Puerto Rican Independence Party secretary for North American affairs. "When everything is said and done, and the reality of Puerto Rico and the United States is examined, the best fit will be for everybody to go their own merry way, happily, and have good relations for the future."

Acevedo Vila, meanwhile, is proposing an enhanced commonwealth -- one that would give the island more control, but maintain the essential bond with the federal government.

He says the island must settle the status debate so that it can address other issues. But he says the discussion must start on the island, not the mainland.

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