AP Online, 05/30/98

U.S. Islands Face Uncertain Future


(05/30/98, Copyright © 1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

GUANICA, Puerto Rico (AP) – A U.S. Navy boat steamed into view, fired off a three-pound gun and sent all of Guanica – Spanish soldiers, townsfolk, stray dogs – scattering for the scrubby green hills.

As simple as that: The U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico had begun.

Today, a McDonald's anchors the top of Calle 25 de Julio, named for that historic July 25 a century ago. And at the foot of this street of pastel houses, facing the sleepy Caribbean harbor where the Americans arrived, a young man lounged on his porch one recent noon, a sun-bleached Stars and Stripes tacked to the wall behind him, and told a visitor what many in Guanica envision for Puerto Rico.

"I want my beautiful island to become one of the states of the United States of America," declared Efrem Cancel-Millan.

As simple as that: The 51st state in the 21st century.

But how easily will Puerto Rico now conquer America?

One hundred years after the U.S. military – in the name of "manifest destiny" – rounded up pieces of the Spanish empire in a 109-day war, America still rules a far-flung collection of five island territories whose destinies are anything but manifest.

And Puerto Rico, with 3.8 million people the most populous of the world's remaining colonies, may have the least predictable future of all.

"They're a quirk of history," the Interior Department's Allen P. Stayman, the Washington official chiefly responsible for territorial affairs, said of the islands.

"They never were a good fit. ... It's a 19th century status in the 20th century."

The four other territories – three in the Pacific, another in the Caribbean – will follow the growing debate over Puerto Rico's political status. Each has its own unique problems and aspirations:

  • Guam (population 146,000), also seized in the Spanish-American War, doesn't seek statehood or independence, but is campaigning for greater autonomy.
  • The Northern Mariana Islands (64,000), taken from Japan in World War II, has clashed with Washington over local control of immigration and minimum wages, basis of a booming garment industry built on labor from China.
  • American Samoa (60,000), ceded to the United States by local chiefs in 1900, is an economic backwater where the local government's fiscal mismanagement has become a long-running scandal.
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands (114,000), sold to America by Denmark in 1917, has an even worse fiscal record. Washington's auditors are now investigating whether the present government mishandled millions in federal funds.

America did not take on its island "empire" with an easy mind. The treaty with Spain that ended the 1898 war, turning the United States into a colonial power, squeaked through the U.S. Senate by two votes.

In Puerto Rico, an independence movement grew in the early decades, and was later suppressed by governors appointed by Washington. In the bloodiest incident, the Ponce Massacre of 1937, police killed 17 unarmed nationalist protesters.

A temporary compromise was reached in 1952. The island was given limited autonomy and dubbed a "commonwealth," in which Puerto Ricans elect a local government and pay no federal taxes, but have no vote in Congress and pay substantial local taxes.

From a desperately poor island of coffee and sugar plantations, Puerto Rico has evolved into an industrial society, with the help of federal tax breaks for U.S. corporations. Acres of shantytowns gave way to suburbs, shopping malls and resorts.

But almost as many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the U.S. mainland in search of work as remain on the island. Two-thirds of those still here rely on some form of welfare. And their colonial status still grates.

One example: After Congress balked at a Reagan administration idea in the 1980s to cut food stamp benefits in the 50 states, it imposed the cuts on Puerto Rico alone.

Now even one of the architects of the commonwealth structure, Jose Trias Monge, warns its time may be running out, unless Washington's power over island life is reduced.

"Commonwealth status will in all probability soon lose its support," the retired Puerto Rico chief justice writes in an influential new book on the status debate.

That debate heated up in 1993 when an aggressive young governor staged an island-wide plebiscite on the question.

Gov. Pedro Rossello said the time had come for statehood, to end Puerto Ricans' role as "disenfranchised stepchildren" of the American family. Pro-commonwealth politicians countered that their rival option, "enhanced" commonwealth, could bring both more welfare aid and greater economic flexibility to the island.

By just two percentage points, plebiscite voters preferred a stronger commonwealth over statehood. Independence received just 4 percent in the non-binding vote.

Rossello, undaunted, is now pushing legislation in Washington to stage a more authoritative, federally sponsored plebiscite that could, if the island's voters and the U.S. Congress agree, lead to statehood within 10 years.

The 1898 takeover "came with a promise of liberty and democracy for Puerto Rico," Rossello said in an interview at La Fortaleza, the grand 16th-century governor's mansion in San Juan. "At the end of that 100-year period, we are finally asking that that promise of full democracy be implemented."

He's confident "significant majorities" will develop in Puerto Rico for statehood. But even if he's right, the picture in Washington is less inspiring: After barely passing in the House on a 209-208 vote in March, the plebiscite bill is all but stalled in the Senate.

Congressional opponents object to even opening the door to the possibility of a Spanish-speaking state. They complain that full social benefits for Puerto Ricans might cost the government $3 billion more a year. They worry that statehood might incite violent resistance by Puerto Rican "independentistas."

Many are also wary for a purely political reason. Six new Puerto Rican members of Congress, almost certainly Democrats, would take House seats away from other states.

Surveying the opposition, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., long involved in territorial matters, questions whether even a resounding Puerto Rican vote for statehood would mean much.

"I'm not convinced the Congress of the United States would honor that commitment," he said in Washington.

Rejection is just fine with Ruben Berrios, head of the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

"When the statehooders get their first kick, which they will get soon, they will realize the only way out is independence, the dignity of independence," he said.

Political scientist Lynn-Darrell Bender sees some basis in that.

"Even the statehooders deep down are 'independentistas'," said Bender, of San Juan's Interamerican University. "They love their country."

And their country is Puerto Rico.

Television's "Seinfeld" inadvertently demonstrated that recently when the character Kramer stomped on a burning Puerto Rican flag and ignited outrage offstage from New York to San Juan.

That single-star flag, fluttering everywhere on the island, is not the only symbol of national pride. Puerto Rico has an anthem, "La Boriquena," that every child learns. It fields its own Olympic team. It cheers for Miss Puerto Rico as she vies with Miss USA for the Miss Universe crown.

But Puerto Ricans cling jealously to another birthright as well, their U.S. citizenship. It's a symbol of security – particularly, everyone acknowledges, the security of welfare and other U.S. government aid.

That's one reason people like Anibal Acevedo Vila, head of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, believe Puerto Ricans will not opt for independence.

Instead, "the time has come for a fully autonomous and democratic commonwealth," Acevedo Vila said. "It would finally balance our identity as a people with the U.S. citizenship we cherish, and would give Puerto Rico the economic tools we need in the next century for our own development."

The "tools" he wants include the sovereign-like power to make economic agreements with other nations, to draw new investment and jobs.

Jobs will be needed. Congress voted in 1996 to phase out the tax break supporting the Puerto Rico operations of U.S.-based pharmaceutical and other manufacturers, whose factories employ about 10 percent of Puerto Rican workers.

Leading San Juan economist Elias R. Gutierrez estimates 14,000 potential and existing jobs have already been lost, in an economy with 13 percent unemployment.

The debate will go on, not least in this quiet south coast town on July 25, when Mayor Edwin Galarza Quinones expects an invasion of 50,000 people – statehooders, commonwealthers, independentistas – for the ceremony marking the centennial.

Galarza, a member of Rossello's New Progressive Party, stands squarely for statehood, which he believes would produce a flood of federal aid. "If we became a state, I could do 100 projects for Guanica – bridges, parks, roads," he said.

His elderly friend and town historian Pedro Juan Vargas, whose father witnessed the 1898 invasion as a boy, is just as squarely for independence.

"My father always said the United States had no moral right to deprive Puerto Rico of self-government," Vargas said.

But others around Guanica, like the great middle ground of Puerto Ricans everywhere, think more about their own futures than the island's. And their futures are often tied to the United States.

Chatting with teen-age friends down by the harbor, Carrie Cruz Troche told an American visitor her plans.

"To study more English. It's very important. And then to go to the States. I want to be a teacher there," said the 17-year-old student, standing where Americans landed in her country a century ago and plotting her own personal invasion of theirs.

How U.S. Territories View America

The Associated Press
(Copyright © 1998. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

What governors say about status of their U.S. territories:

"Uncle Sam has been infinitely more supportive of our aspirations as a people than Mother Spain ever was. Be that as it may, however, with the centennial of the Spanish-American War now upon us, the people of Puerto Rico do remain disenfranchised stepchildren within the great American family."

– Gov. Pedro Rossello of Puerto Rico.

"Any way you call it, we're a colony and it's embarrassing. Nothing is in our hands. It's all in the United States' hands."

– Gov. Carl Gutierrez of Guam.

"Because of the hurricanes, the feeling of the majority of the Virgin Islanders is that it's a good thing that we are Americans, because we got so much support from all areas in America."

– Gov. Roy L. Schneider of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which suffered major damage in hurricanes in 1989 and 1995.

Timeline of U.S. Territories

The Associated Press
(Copyright © 1998. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

A timeline of U.S. territories:

  • 1898–U.S. takes Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico from Spain in Spanish-American War.
  • 1898–Hawaii annexed by U.S.
  • 1900–Local chiefs cede two Samoan islands to U.S.
  • 1917–Denmark sells three Virgin Islands to U.S. for $25 million.
  • 1935–Philippines becomes self-governing U.S. commonwealth.
  • 1937–Police gunfire kills 17 in anti-U.S. march in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
  • 1945–World War II victory leaves U.S. with ex-Japanese colonies in Pacific.
  • 1946–Philippines gains independence.
  • 1950–Puerto Rican nationalists fail in bid to assassinate President Truman.
  • 1952–Puerto Rico becomes self-governing U.S. commonwealth.
  • 1954–Puerto Rican nationalists open fire in U.S. House, wounding five representatives.
  • 1959–Hawaii and Alaska become U.S. states.
  • 1975–Puerto Rican terrorist bomb kills four at New York's Fraunces Tavern.
  • 1986–Ex-Japanese islands held by U.S. under U.N. trusteeship gain sovereignty, except for Northern Marianas, which choose to become U.S. commonwealth.
  • 1993–In non-binding vote, Puerto Ricans narrowly favor commonwealth status over statehood.

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