SUN-SENTINEL, Fort Lauderdale, FL

On big day, Puerto Rico plays political limbo
People marked the centennial by reaffirming their respective views on the future of the island.

By Maria T. Padilla
of The Sentinel Staff

(07/26/98, Copyright © 1998 The Orlando Sentinel)

GUANICA, Puerto Rico -- The 100th anniversary of the American invasion of Puerto Rico brought a clash of ideologies at events throughout the island.

Crowds gathered here and in San Juan on Saturday as the statehood, commonwealth and independence factions gave political speeches that veered little from the usual claims.

Pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello used the opportunity to announce there would be a political plebiscite in December, with or without congressional authorization. Although the governor has spoken of holding a plebiscite before, it was the first time he gave a specific time.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill authorizing Puerto Ricans to vote on their political future, but it appears to be snagged in the Senate. Rossello said he signed a law Friday appropriating $1 million to the State Elections Commission to prepare for the nonbinding plebiscite.

"To those who fervently profess that Puerto Rico cannot be a state, we today affirm that Puerto Rico shall indeed become the 51st state of the U.S.A.," Rossello told an enthusiastic crowd gathered in a field next to the Guanica coliseum.

Rossello unfurled a flag with 51 stars to underscore his message. At one point, the crowd chanted "four more years" to the two-term governor.

About 46 percent of the electorate backs statehood. Polls taken during the past five years show islanders evenly divided, with about 40 percent each supporting statehood or remaining a U.S. commonwealth.

Even if U.S. senators approved the bill and most Puerto Ricans voted for statehood, the final decision on making Puerto Rico the 51st state would still require a vote in Congress.

Rossello and Puerto Rico's delegate to Congress, Carlos Romero Barcelo, hammered the issue of Puerto Rico's inequality to U.S. states.

When the goods in Congress get divvied up, "the states sit at the dining room table, while the territories sit in the kitchen," Romero Barcelo said.

Statehood and independence followers had one thing in common. Both were adamant that Puerto Rico's political limbo should be resolved.

"It's 100 years, and we have to deal with this once and for all," said Juan Castillo, who arrived in Guanica from San German, west of here, for the statehood activities at 7:30 a.m.

Independence supporter Victor Milan of Ponce echoed the sentiment. "This has to be resolved. A large part of the public is clamoring for it," Milan said.

Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo said there were 30,000 statehooders and 10,000 independence supporters in Guanica. The groups were stationed about a mile apart.

Guanica was festooned with Puerto Rican flags, because that is the one symbol each political party claims as its own. Statehooders also carried the American flag, a symbol of the "100 years of union and progress" as well as of the American citizenship many Puerto Ricans cherish.

But independence backers, who kicked off their march to the waterfront at 10 a.m., rejected the United States and its symbols. Independence leaders declared it a day of mourning for the "barbaric American invasion" 100 years ago.

Signs read: "If you want to live in a state, choose one of the 50." Others declared: "There is nothing to celebrate. We're here to reclaim our country." Many supporters wore T-shirts that said "Libre" ("Free").

"This is a day of jubilant protest. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have come to claim Puerto Rican independence," said Victor Garcia San Inoncencio, the lone pro-independence representative in Puerto Rico's legislature.

About 4 percent of the Puerto Rican electorate supports independence.

Independence and statehood leaders each took jabs at the commonwealth party, saying Puerto Rico's current relationship with the United States, was not the "best of both worlds" but an inexcusable defense of colonization.

Former pro-commonwealth Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon earlier called attacks on commonwealth a "spectacle of collaborators" who want to remove commonwealth as a legitimate political option.

Thousands of pro-commonwealth followers gathered at the El Morro fortress in San Juan to commemorate Puerto Rico's constitution, which was signed 46 years ago and gave Puerto Rico more self-governing powers.

In a nonbinding referendum in 1993, similar to what Rossello proposes this year, commonwealth edged out statehood by 2 percentage points.

Wire services contributed to this report.

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