Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, FL


Maria T. Padilla of The Sentinel Staff

(08/02/98, Copyright © 1998 The Orlando Sentinel)

In calling for a December vote on Puerto Rico's future, Gov. Pedro Rossello acknowledged that Congress is not going to push for the island's political self-determination.

Since March, the U.S. Senate has been sitting on a bill that would allow Puerto Ricans to hold a special vote on their fate. The House of Representatives narrowly approved a similar measure in March on a day marked by passionate debate.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi continues to say the Senate won't have time to grapple with the Puerto Rico bill. That bill would bind Congress to the outcome of the vote, be it the existing commonwealth, statehood or independence.

But political analysts say the real issue is Lott's opposition to statehood for Puerto Rico.

"Lott found any offer of statehood unacceptable," said analyst Juan Garcia Passalacqua, who is based in Puerto Rico.

After two years of pushing for congressional approval of a binding plebiscite, Rossello said the turn of events was unacceptable.

"Today, we tell Sen. Lott that if he believes that the self-determination of our people is not a matter of great importance, for Puerto Rico it is. If after 100 years, the U.S. Senate does not possess the will to put an end to a century of colonialism, Puerto Rico does," Rossello said on July 25, the 100th anniversary of the American invasion of Puerto Rico.

In the week since Rossello's announcement, there have been some additional rumblings in the Senate.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on Friday offered legislation that laid out definitions of the options for Puerto Ricans: statehood, continued commonwealth status or independence.

He said the bill is "absolutely not" binding on Congress to accept the choice Puerto Ricans make, but he said his legislation is less biased toward statehood than the bill passed by the House, which required continued voting until either statehood or independence was a winner.

Congress has never committed itself to resolving Puerto Rico's political future, and that's what a congressionally authorized plebiscite would achieve. Absent Congress' commitment, Puerto Rico twice this century has held a special vote - in 1967 and 1993. But island residents call these elections "beauty contests" or "creole plebiscites" because Congress isn't obligated to do anything. In fact, Congress all but ignored the last vote in 1993.

The vote set for Dec. 13 raises the stakes for all involved. Statehooders are counting on a victory that may knock out Puerto Rico's existing commonwealth relationship with the United States. And the Democratic White House is looking to upstage Republicans. The White House already has asked Congress to honor the December vote.

Many Puerto Ricans of all political stripes are eager to resolve their political future and said so during activities held in the small town of Guanica on the anniversary of the American invasion. There is growing indignation on the island about Congress' attitude.

People such as Juan Castillo of San German, a statehooder, said he was ready to cast his vote. Independence supporter Victor Milan of Ponce said the public was clamoring for change. There is a growing sense of injustice and unfairness about how the United States is treating this issue.

"This has to be resolved. The public is demanding it," Milan said.

Newspaper columnist Ismael Fernandez wrote in El Nuevo Dia that the Senate had slammed the door on the island, leaving little alternative.

"Do they really think we should wait 100 years more?" he wrote in El Nuevo Dia, the island's dominant Spanish-language newspaper.

Sensitivity to this issue is high because Puerto Rico has been down this road before. In 1989-1991, a plebiscite bill pushed by former pro-commonwealth Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon also died after much fanfare.

In a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, Hernandez Colon criticized Congress for leaving Puerto Rico hanging.

The island's commonwealth and independence parties immediately seconded Rossello's call for a December vote. The independence party has always backed the initiative. But the commonwealth party, which had criticized the latest congressional efforts as being "pro-statehood," thinks it can get a better deal from the White House.

However, each group - Congress included - is vulnerable to the results.

The governor and his statehood party are betting that Puerto Rican voters will choose statehood, although Puerto Ricans have twice rejected it. In the 1993 election, statehood lost by a two-point margin.

In June, a San Juan newspaper poll showed a 40-40 split between statehood and commonwealth.

Commonwealth, which is the existing relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, has dominated island politics since it was forged in 1952. It cannot afford further loss of voters' support.

In 1993, commonwealth obtained 48 percent of the vote, down from 61 percent in 1967. If statehood edges out commonwealth, then commonwealth will lose its legitimacy in Puerto Rico and in Congress.

For the Republican Congress, the Senate's inaction may represent another lost opportunity to court Hispanic voters. This November, all 435 House seats and one-third of the Senate are up for grabs. The Hispanic vote will be important in such areas as California, Florida and New York, where their numbers are greatest.

Republican polls show that two-thirds of U.S. voters - including Hispanic ones - want Puerto Ricans to vote on their future. GOP pollsters such as Mike Dabadie of Wirthlin Worldwide say the GOP should reach out to Hispanics, who account for one of every 10 people in the United States.

"The party needs to address these kinds of issues because of the size of the Hispanic population and the symbolic importance of this issue," Dabadie said.

The White House wasted no time in upstaging Republican lawmakers. A day after Rossello's announcement, administration officials said President Clinton would ask Congress to honor the results of the Puerto Rican vote.

President Clinton has favored the island vote from the beginning. During a two-day Senate hearing last month - televised live in Puerto Rico - the administration reiterated its support, saying, "Puerto Ricans should be enabled to choose among all of the options."

For island residents, the December vote means Puerto Rico will be in a political frenzy for five more months.

This comes on top of a 41-day Puerto Rico Telephone Co. workers' strike that ended last week and a two-day general strike in July that paralyzed some business sectors. In addition, the anniversary of the U.S. military invasion has spurred debate and revived old hurts.

"It looks like Puerto Rico's long, hot summer is going to end in December," said political analyst Garcia Passalacqua.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback