A New Debate on the Fate (And State) of Puerto Rico

The New York Times


(03/30/98, c. 1998 New York Times Company)

GUANICA, P.R. -- On a stone set on a pedestal in Guanica, a small town in southwestern Puerto Rico, a plaque commemorates "the landing of the American troops under Gen. Nelson A. Miles on Guanica Beach, July 25, 1898." Today's Guanica bears many other marks of that invasion -- a United States Post Office, cross-cultural storefront signs like "Ayala Funeral Service" and residents like Florencio Suarez-Williams, the grandson of one of the American occupiers. "He was a good man," Mr. Suarez-Williams, 75, said proudly of his grandfather, Capt. Abraham B. Williams, a doctor from Florida. "He could have gone on to seek military glory, but he stayed here to help people." But a century after Spain ceded Puerto Rico to United States rule after losing the Spanish-American War, Americans and Puerto Ricans are less certain of their feelings for each other than is Mr. Suarez-Williams. Prodded by the centennial of the Spanish-American War this year, international disapproval of any vestiges of colonialism and the failings of the status quo, both the United States and Puerto Rico seem to want change. But in trying to redefine their relationship, both are sizing up each other as if 100 years have not been long enough to commit or part ways, or even get to know each other well.

For the first time, Congress is seriously considering a bill that would allow the island of nearly four million people to vote on whether it wants statehood, independence or the current commonwealth association. The bill has been approved by the House. However, Congress itself is sharply divided over whether to accept a possible 51st state. And for the first time in Puerto Rico, the major political parties agree that the status quo is no longer acceptable, but they remain almost equally split between statehood and some form of association with the United States.

The issue of self-determination has bogged down in Washington on questions about the economic, political and cultural cost of incorporating a Spanish-speaking land. In Puerto Rico, a decision about the island's fate is deeply wrapped in a sense of identity. Miguel Hernandez-Agosto, past president of the Popular Democratic Party, which was the architect of the current "free associated state" status created in 1952, argues that the century-old association with the United States has created a hybrid: a territory that regards itself as a nation, Americans who feel Puerto Rican, a Latin American culture used to North American standards and values.

"This is not a barrio of the Bronx," said Mr. Hernandez-Agosto, 70. "This is not a question of who favors Hispanics and who doesn't. This is a country with roots, with an idiosyncrasy, with pride, that transcends its boundaries. "Puerto Rico treasures and defends its own identity," Mr. Hernandez-Agosto said, "but it also treasures and defends its U.S. citizenship." Commonwealth supporters like Mr. Hernandez-Agosto want more autonomy and to keep their island from succumbing to what he calls "the cultural genocide" of statehood or the instability of complete disassociation. The commonwealth alternative won 48 percent of the vote in a nonbinding status referendum in 1993. But there are two other aspirations:statehood, supported by 46 percent of the referendum voters, and independence, backed by a passionate minority of 4 percent.

What seems like a perennial debate over political status has gained momentum in Puerto Rico as frustrations grow. It is a status that has given Puerto Ricans American citizenship but denied equal rights and obligations. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in Federal elections and do not pay Federal taxes or receive Federal benefits comparable to those in the states unless they move to the mainland. The status has brought economic benefits that have led to a strong middle class and has allowed about three million Puerto Ricans to migrate to and from the states, but has also created a dependence on Federal aid, like food stamps.

In Guanica, a town of about 20,000 where the main street is named "25 de Julio" for the day the Americans arrived, Mr. Suarez-Williams and his sister, Libertad, both advocate statehood. Ms. Suarez-Williams argued that the United States freed Puerto Rico from the tyranny of the Spanish monarchy and instilled the democratic values that it cherishes today. But she said the current commonwealth status renders Puerto Ricans impotent to make their own decisions or influence those made for them in Washington because they cannot vote for President or Congress. "The greatest benefit of statehood would be that Puerto Ricans could develop a sense of self-esteem with a government that is not trampling them," said Ms. Suarez-Williams, a former high school teacher. "If you don't have strong self-esteem, you are in a state of conformity and incapacitation."

But two years at a community college in Wichita, Kan., convinced Hilka Mercado, 19, a student who works as a waitress at the Blue Marlin Restaurant and Pub here, that the cultures are too different to be joined closer than they are now.

"They don't know where Puerto Rico is," she said of the people she knew in Kansas. "To them Puerto Rico is part of Mexico. To them I'm black. They say I speak Mexican. You can't be that ethnocentric. How can you want to part of people who don't want you?" Ms. Mercado supports a commonwealth that would give Puerto Rico more autonomy. But Pedro Juan Vargas, 86, the town's historian and a supporter of independence, said Puerto Rico was entitled to "its own sovereignty and everything the United States wants for itself."

Mr. Vargas said he did not expect radical change because, he argued, the United States finds the status quo in its interest. Puerto Rico, he said, represents a major market for American products, an outpost for American military bases and "a blood tribute" paid by the Puerto Ricans who fight America's wars. "If we were a burden, they would have gotten rid of us long ago," he said.

Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and a co-sponsor of the plebiscite bill, said that Puerto Rico posed a test of the United States' commitment to self-determination and that his bill should pass as "a statement of recommitment to the principle of the Declaration of Independence -- that people should have a say in their destiny." But he said he had warned his colleagues not to vote for the bill if they were not ready to abide by a binding plebiscite.

The legislation passed the House earlier this month by the slimmest of margins, 209 to 208, after 11 hours of debate in which Democrats, Republicans and representatives of Puerto Rican descent argued on both sides of the issue. (Most Republicans voted against it and most Democrats for it.) Its chances in the Republican Senate appear slimmer. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has not scheduled hearings on the bill but is conducting a "workshop" on Thursday to familiarize members with the issue, said Derek Jumper, a committee spokesman.

The Popular Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, opposes the plebiscite bill in Congress, charging that some of its terms favor statehood. It is studying a proposal by Mr. Hernandez-Agosto for an alternative status that would transfer to Puerto Rico some of the powers now under Federal jurisdiction. The party wants exemptions from some Federal laws that it says hamper Puerto Rico's economic development and flexibility for the island to enter into its own international trade deals to create new jobs. But opponents call those proposals largely cosmetic. They include Luis A. Ferre, the former governor, a Republican Party chairman in Puerto Rico and founder of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which is in control. Mr. Ferre said that if Puerto Ricans were to remain American citizens and subject to Federal law they should have full vote and say.

Statehood advocates have made a plebiscite such a priority since Gov. Pedro J. Rossello took over in 1992 that they have pushed for the removal of tax exemptions for American companies, increased English instruction in public schools and played down the island's sense of nationhood, all to help pave the way for acceptance into the union.

"We're not like other Latin Americans," said Mr. Ferre, 94. "We Puerto Ricans, without realizing it, have changed. We're the product of the peaceful fusion of two cultures. We're already incorporated." But just as determined is the pro-independence camp, which in the past has used violence to send a message. Juan Mari Bras, a lawyer and a pro-independence leader, has legally renounced his American citizenship. He said members of Congress who expressed concern about fomenting another Quebec or worse with statehood have reason to worry. "The independentistas are not going to accept statehood with their arms crossed," said Mr. Mari Bras, 70. "One nation does not fit into another. It's that simple."

In Guanica, preparations are already under way for the centennial commemoration of the takeover by the United States. While independence advocates plan a march to repudiate the invasion, the ruling statehood advocates are gearing up for a celebration.

Mr. Vargas, the historian, is not planning to attend any events. Nor is he following the goings-on in Congress with the plebiscite bill, he said. "Ever since General Miles entered through Guanica everything has been promises, promises," he said. "Puerto Ricans realized the sad reality that all that happened in 1898 was that we exchanged monarchical masters for democratic ones."

Photos: Florencio Suarez-Williams of Guanica before a monument to the Americans who landed there when the United States seized Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898. His grandfather, a military doctor, was among them. Hilka Mercado says the United States and Puerto Rico are too different to be joined. (Photographs by Miguel Maldonado for The New York Times)(pg. A10)

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