WASHINGTON, July 23 -- The Democratic Governor of Puerto Rico, pushing for a chance for his island to vote for statehood, has come up with a tempting sales pitch for the Republican-controlled Congress.
Imagine a place, Gov. Pedro J. Rossello and his lobbyists say, that
opposes abortion, hands out vouchers so children can attend parochial
schools, has sliced capital gains taxes, allows school pupils five
minutes for prayer, and is busy privatizing many of its major
industries. The place, they add, hoping to clinch the deal, is Puerto
''Puerto Rico passed the 'Contract With America,' '' said an
important backer in Congress, Senator Larry E. Craig, and it is a point
that the Idaho Republican never fails to make to incredulous colleagues
as he pushes his legislation for a Congressionally sanctioned referendum
on Puerto Rico's status.
It is an uphill battle to persuade his fellow Republican senators,
especially the majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, to
take the chance that Puerto Rico will not, as a state, send two
Democratic senators and six Democratic representatives to Washington.
That fear, along with the fact that Puerto Rico is Spanish-speaking, has
kept the Republican-controlled Congress from acting quickly in
accordance with the party's 1996 platform plank that ''we support the
right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the
Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determine.''
To get the party to live up to that pledge, Governor Rossello is
trying to convince Republicans that the island will make a stellar 51st
state and that Puerto Ricans will not necessarily vote for Democrats.
It is a message that other statehood supporters are sending, too.
Just last month, Jack Marquez, a Puerto Rican who was decorated for his
service in the Vietnam War, established the Puerto Rican American
Foundation here. The lobbying group, modeled on the influential Cuban
American National Foundation and working independently of the Puerto
Rican Government, seeks to spread the gospel about Puerto Rico's
''This is a very conservative society,'' Mr. Marquez said. ''Not a
'West Side Story,' welfare-cheating society as it is portrayed in some
His group recently ran an advertisement on conservative talk shows
supporting a Republican bill for education tax credits, saying, ''If
school choice can work in Puerto Rico, it will work for America.''
Opponents of statehood counter that the Republican image is not as
pure as Mr. Rossello and his supporters have presented it. Puerto Rico
also has strict gun control laws and a universal health care system.
''And we still have the view that the Government is the most important
player guaranteeing social justice for the people,'' said Anibal Acevedo
Vila, president of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports keeping
a variation of the island's current commonwealth status. In other words,
despite the Governor's recent efforts, many Puerto Ricans love big
government, Mr. Avevedo Vila said.
In March, the United States House of Representatives voted 209 to 208
to set Puerto Rico self-determination in motion. The 10-year process
would begin with a referendum allowing Puerto Ricans to choose among
three options: independence, statehood or commonwealth status.
The bill was supported by proponents of statehood, including Mr.
Rossello and both houses of the Puerto Rican Legislature, as well as the
relatively small faction supporting independence. It was vigorously
opposed by commonwealth backers, who said the bill, in putting forward a
narrow definition of commonwealth for the referendum, was unfairly
slanted toward statehood.
Now the onus is on the United States Senate. Mr. Lott has said there
is simply not enough time this year to grapple with an issue as
contentious as Puerto Rico's self-determination. But Senator Frank H.
Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who heads the Committee on Energy and
Natural Resources and vividly remembers Alaska's own struggle for
statehood, is forging ahead with a streamlined bill that at the least
would allow for a referendum and a set of approved definitions.
Republican pollsters and consultants have advised party members to
seize on the issue of Puerto Rican self-determination, saying it is a
natural for Hispanic voters and one that tracks with the party's support
''Hispanics in this country hold many of the same virtues and values
as Republicans, but they continue to feel alienated by what they
characterize as the close-mindedness on the part of Republicans in their
approach to governing,'' two Republican pollsters, Ed Goeas and William
Stewart, wrote in a report on a national study of Hispanic attitudes.
The issue is complicated, especially in an election year, confronting
as it does questions of language and cultural identity. Although Puerto
Rico is predominantly Spanish-speaking, English is routinely spoken in
government and business, and it has a distinct culture.
''No one should assume that the road to a status change will be short
or smooth,'' Senator Murkowski warned at a recent hearing.
Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898 after the
Spanish-American War. Congress granted United States citizenship to
Puerto Ricans in 1917 and made the island a commonwealth in 1952. Puerto
Rico has its own laws, taxes and government. Puerto Ricans who live on
the island are subject to United States military service, but do not pay
Federal taxes, cannot vote for Presidential or Congressional candidates,
and are not entitled to most Federal benefits.
Puerto Ricans are almost equally split between statehood and
commonwealth status. Relatively few favor independence.
''At least 75 percent of Puerto Rican voters align themselves with
status options rather than candidates, programs or solutions to pressing
problems,'' Senator Murkowski said. ''This orientation distorts
One important battle over the referendum bill centers on how to
define ''commonwealth.'' Commonwealth supporters pushed for a broad
definition that would guarantee American citizenship, among other
things. The House rejected that definition, and now commonwealth backers
say they will boycott the referendum, if it comes to pass. Statehood
supporters say a definition guaranteeing citizenship is
Without a guarantee of United States citizenship, most Puerto Ricans,
even those who see economic advantages in commonwealth status, are
likely to vote for statehood.
In pressing their case for a referendum, which they believe will lead
to statehood and greater economic prosperity on the island, Mr. Rossello
and his chief lobbyist, Xavier Romeu, have painstakingly listed the
Governor's chief accomplishments since 1992.
Mr. Rossello has privatized the government-owned shipping industry,
the hotel industry and, most recently, the telephone industry. He has
cut the capital gains tax to 7 percent from 20 percent. He has slashed
welfare spending by 20 percent and made both English and Spanish
official languages. And Puerto Rico has seen a 19 percent reduction in
the personal income tax.
The pitch does not thrill Democrats of Puerto Rican descent.
Representative Jose E. Serrano, a New York liberal who supports the
referendum, practically grimaces at the thought of Puerto Rico as a
conservative bastion, describing it as pandering.
''You do so much to please the master,'' said Mr. Serrano, who calls
Puerto Rico the last United States colony. ''People are desperate to
make their point. It's like we can make you guys wish you had another 50
states just like us.''
Photo: Xavier Romeu, the chief Washington lobbyist for Gov. Pedro J.
Rossello of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are divided on whether to seek
statehood or retain their commonwealth status, but few favor
independence. (Justin Lane for The New York Times) (pg. A19)