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Hurricane Boosts Puerto Rican Statehood

by Michelle Faul

October 22, 1998
©Copyright The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - When Hurricane Georges demolished thousands of Puerto Rican homes, it also handed supporters of statehood a valuable gift: a chance to prove that it pays handsomely to be part of the United States.

The federal government's mighty relief effort - at $1.5 billion and counting -has been caught up in a political storm, with critics accusing Gov. Pedro Rossello of exploiting it to boost the statehood side in an upcoming vote on the island's status .

Statehood supporters, meanwhile, dismissed opposition calls that the Dec. 13 vote be put off until the island recovers.

"All relief work is politics," said James Lee Witt, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, when he visited the island last week. The Sept. 21 hurricane - considered the worst to hit Puerto Rico in 70 years- came as the island is preparing for a referendum on whether to continue its current status or opt for statehood or independence.

The United States, which has controlled Puerto Rico since driving out the Spanish a century ago, is not bound by the vote but President Clinton has said Congress should honor the result. However, the current lawmaking body appears unlikely to approve of expanding the union.

The last referendum , in 1993, was narrowly won by supporters of the current "commonwealth" status , whereby Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens with limited rights and duties. Only a tiny minority supports independence.

Statehood supporters deride commonwealth as colonial status , noting that islanders cannot vote for president or for Congress, which has ultimate control here.

Commonwealth supporters fear statehood would dilute their Hispanic culture and make English the dominant language.

Last week, Witt detailed FEMA accomplishments that include:

  • Raising $1.5 billion from the government, making this the organization's biggest storm-relief project ever.
  • Launching a five-year project to build 50,000 homes.
  • Registering and paying more victims more quickly than ever.

In addition, the U.S. military launched an ambitious relief effort, transporting thousands of tons of cots, medicines, ice, water and generators to aid victims.

Several hundred Marines from Camp Lejuene, N.C., installed temporary bridges, power-generating stations and water purification centers. Heavy-lift helicopters delivered the aid to remote mountain towns.

The aid stood in sharp contrast to the situation in neighboring countries.

The English-language San Juan Star daily noted that "things are sharply different" in the devastated Dominican Republic and Haiti, where "they do not have the financial and expert support from Washington that Puerto Rico does."

Georges killed some 500 people in those two countries - compared to three in Puerto Rico - and their governments have been unable to cope with hundreds of thousands of homeless.

"The governor's strategists believe they will reap a political windfall from the outpouring of federal aid," wrote columnist Bob Becker in the Star. "The message will be crystal clear... statehood assures the strong assistance of the United States in times of natural catastrophe."

A group led by opposition legislator Roberto Cruz Rodriguez has demanded an investigation of Rossello's handling of aid, saying he illegally withheld money from the opposition-controlled town of Ponce until he could arrive and distribute it himself.

"(That's) an abuse that borders on plain impudence," Cruz Rodriguez charged.

Critics say Rossello allies have also distributed pro- statehood literature at events where he has handed out relief checks.

But, most damning in the eyes of many in this music-mad society, such events have featured louspeakers blaring "The Cup Of Life," a hit song that has become associated with the governor's campaign.

"It's a great way to bring comfort to people, to make them cheerful," countered Rossello's chief of staff, Angel Morey.

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