SUN-SENTINEL, Fort Lauderdale, FL


By DOREEN HEMLOCK, Business Writer

(07/30/98, Copyright © 1998 SUN-SENTINEL)

Dateline: GUANICA, Puerto Rico

On one side of town, thousands marched to protest U.S. control and call for independence. On the other side, even bigger crowds complained of second-class U.S. citizenship and pushed instead for statehood.

In San Juan, some 50 miles north, thousands danced to a musical extravaganza that celebrated the island's current status as a commonwealth.

One hundred years after U.S. troops disembarked in this southwestern town, Puerto Ricans clashed over U.S. relations at separate rallies, and Gov. Pedro Rossello set a date for a vote on the divisive issue: December.

"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," the pro-statehood governor told throngs as he unveiled details for his proposed vote.

Crowds began swarming into Guanica on Friday, with massive traffic jams snarling highways for miles. Some pro-independence youths slept in tents to be on hand for Saturday's morning march. Others gathered as early as 4:30 a.m. to board buses from San Juan. The bay where U.S. troops landed and hoisted the Stars and Stripes was dotted with pleasure boats flying the Puerto Rican flag. A sign on one boat read, "100 Years, Enough Already!"

A group of pro-independence artists denounced the U.S. invasion with a replica of the Trojan horse. The Puerto Rican version was painted with U.S. logos _ such as McDonald's, the FBI and Coca-Cola _ and filled with more than 50 actors and dancers. One was dressed as the Statue of Liberty and held the names of 15 Puerto Ricans in U.S. jails for their independence activities.

"Americans came promising liberation for Puerto Rico, but instead they brought other gifts: destruction of the environment, massacres and colonialism," said Rafael Trelles, a designer for the Trojan horse.

Gov. Rossello also denounced unfilled promises for liberty brought by U.S. Gen. Nelson A. Miles in 1898. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico cannot vote for U.S. president and congressional delegations, and they have less access to benefits and resources than citizens living in the United States, he said.

The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would allow Puerto Ricans to choose between statehood, commonwealth and independence in a vote that would, for the first time, obligate Congress to implement the results. All previous votes in Puerto Rico have been nonbinding.

But with passage unlikely, Rossello said he would call a special session of Puerto Rico's legislature next month to pass a bill for a local, nonbinding vote. On Friday, he signed a law authorizing $1 million to cover initial costs.

In San Juan, commonwealth supporters spoke of the merits of their status, established by Puerto Rico's 1952 constitution and still evolving.

Some commonwealth leaders want a vote to show Washington that theirs is still the preferred option.

But San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon has called talk about Puerto Rico's political future "a sterile debate. . . . Our history has taught us that ideological debates have not resolved the problems of our people."

Still, the Puerto Rican Independence Party prepared for its rally as if an election were under way, even joining with disparate groups to show force.

Treated as a celebrity at the gathering was a socialist lawyer who renounced his U.S. citizenship and instead claims Puerto Rican citizenship. Statehood supporters had sued, but the Puerto Rico Supreme Court recognized his right to a separate citizenship and to vote in island elections. Dozens sought out his autograph on Puerto Rican flags and took snapshots with him.

"The independence movement is known for being divided into 10 pieces, but here, all 10 pieces have come together," Mari Bras said proudly.

Those attending also included two members of the Nationalist Party who attacked the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954, injuring several lawmakers, in a move to protest U.S. control and the creation of the commonwealth. Some news reports on Friday's shooting at the U.S. Capitol recalled the Nationalists' violence.

"[The Americans) remembered me. That's good," said Rafael Cancel Miranda, who spent 25 years in prison before President Carter's pardon two decades ago. "Let them not forget," he said from the main stage on the bay shore.

Striking telephone workers who had planned a mass protest at the Rossello rally did not turn out, after their leaders reached an agreement with management late Friday.

Union workers will hold a ratification vote Tuesday and could return to work as early as Wednesday, ending a five-week strike called to protest the government's plan to sell the company.

Rossello remains undaunted by union opposition and mass turnouts by his political rivals and confident that statehood would win in December.

"No one would call a vote if they think they'll lose," he said.

But even a victory in December still must be recognized by Congress and would not mean an end to island politicking.

"Never, never, never will there be statehood in our land," Lolita Lebron, one of the Nationalists who had shot up Congress in 1954, told crowds. "We're a free nation that has been denied our freedom. . . . We'll fight."

Staff photos/A. ENRIQUE VALENTIN Independence supporter Dylka Pratts, 17, displays the Puerto Rican flag across her face during the rally.. Supporters of independence for Puerto Rico march down 25 de Julio Avenue to reach the Bay of Guanica in a rally to repudiate the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico. It has been 100 years since Gen. Nelson Miles and his troops landed on the island's shore, bringing with them promises of liberty that the marchers say have not been fulfilled. At top, Adnil Cristal Trini, 11 months, held by Leslie Valez, waves a Puerto Rican flag on Saturday during a pro-independence day celebration in Guanica, Puerto Rico. Above, pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello joins his party's celebration of the centennial of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico.

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