Albuquerque Journal - Albuquerque, NM

Puerto Rico Primed For Vote on Its Status

(07/17/98 Copyright © 1998)

At the end of this month, the island of Puerto Rico will mark the 100th anniversary of U.S. troops landing on its soil. That, along with the recent celebration of the Fourth of July and talks in the U.S. Senate of a plebiscite on statehood all serve as reminders to the Puerto Rican people of the question that divides them: what the political future of Puerto Rico should and will be.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House passed a measure allowing Puerto Rico's citizens to determine that future with a three-option plebiscite: to become a U.S. state, become fully independent or continue as a commonwealth, with American citizenship, military draft responsibilities, no federal taxes and no voice in federal elections.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he doesn't intend to hold a vote in the Senate this year, but the Clinton administration and Puerto Rico's governor (from the pro-statehood Popular Democratic Party) are trying to change his mind before the current Congress adjourns.

While officials of Puerto Rican government favor statehood, there is a strong nationalist movement in the country concerned that privatization of government corporations will lead to layoffs. The country has been in turmoil in recent weeks as the result of a phone strike prompted by the government's attempted sale of the Puerto Rican phone company to corporate interests.

The very vocal and visible nationalist strikers claim they have the support of "the people." But the will of the people is best demonstrated in the form of a vote.

The House bill under Senate consideration would not automatically change Puerto Rico's status. It would require two more bills and three popular mandates from the people of Puerto Rico over a period of up to 12 years or more for change to occur.

Residents in 1993 voted by a very slim margin to maintain commonwealth status -- reflecting the divisiveness on the state vs. independence issue.

With the country's status again at the forefront of national debate, and with both statehood and independence advocates in support of an election, the Senate should move toward authorizing a plebiscite for the Puerto Rican people.

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