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Statehooders Sense Opportunity

by Robert Becker

October 19, 1998
©Copyright The San Juan Star

From a strictly political perspective, it's easy to understand why the New Progressive Party is so eager to press on with the Dec. 13 plebiscite. Like a fighter who has weakened his opponent with a series of punishing blows, the pro-statehood party senses victory within its grasp.

Events over the past few months are shifting the political landscape in Puerto Rico. While pro-statehood, pro-commonwealth and pro-independence sentiments remain in roughly the same proportion, the twists and turns of events is fueling NPP confidence. Congress has, after decades of dithering, clearly stated its view that Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, under the full powers of Congress. That historically significant development has touched off a debate within the Popular Democratic Party that has led to some splintering among party supporters who differ on how to respond to the onrush of events in Washington. Some populares look to an associated republic as the way out of the status deadlock, while others believe a plebiscite boycott is the only proper response.

The internal churning in the PDP only strengthens the NPP's hand against the "None of the Above" vote in the plebiscite. Hard-core statehooders see the Dec. 13 vote as a way of accelerating history by surpassing the magical 50 percent margin. They are confident because the PDP is off-balance, and they are also confident because they believe the passage of Hurricane Georges will boost their stock. The federal government has already pumped $1 billion into Puerto Rico in hurricane relief, with more to come. NPP strategists believe they will reap a political windfall from the outpouring of federal aid. They won't have to say it in their campaign, but the message will be crystal clear: permanent union under statehood ensures the strong assistance of the United States in times of natural catastrophe; separatist options, including "None of the Above," will jeopardize that valuable relationship.

Another reason for the NPP's confidence is that in 1998, Congress has gone on record unequivocally on how it regards its relationship with Puerto Rico. By defining us as an unincorporated territory under the full powers of Congress, Washington has handed the statehooders an ideological club to use against the pro-commonwealth forces. It has validated the contention of the statehooders and independence advocates that Puerto Rico exists in a colonial relationship with the united States. Once that road has been gone down, there is no way to escape the perception it has had with voters here. It has put the PDP on the defensive, a posture that no one wants to defend, whether in war or politics.

All of these things, taken together, illuminate Gov. Rossello's decision to forge ahead with the plebiscite, against the best instincts of some within his own party. Those NPP leaders privately worried about the wisdom of holding the plebiscite so soon after Puerto Rico suffered devastation on a scale seldom seen in its history. They know that recovery, both from our economic damages and the psychological wounds inflicted by the hurricane, will be protracted, costly and in need of a spirit of cooperation and harmony for it to move forward. Plebiscite campaigns do non of these things. They arouse passions, they heighten differences, they do nothing to bring people together. I wonder-what will happen if a pro-statehood caravan passes through a PDP-controlled town that is still without electricity, without water, without telephone service, where many residents are living under plastic tarps?

Puerto Rico is on edge. The plebiscite will test the patience and goodwill of everyone in ways that still cannot be imagined. Would it have done much harm to delay the vote for a few months, as some leading citizens have proposed? I don't think so. But here we are.

The PDP's response to the successful NPP status maneuvering has been to devise its "None of the Above" campaign and to release on Oct. 16, its new definition of commonwealth status. Linking the two concepts, the PDP is telling its supporters that voting for "None of the Above" is voting for the new commonwealth, a wish list of sovereign powers stitched together with promises of permanent union with the United States, all while carefully avoiding any commitment to a true sovereignty possible under the U.S. constitutional system. The New Commonwealth won't fly in Washington, and it won't fly with some PDP supporters searching for a more meaningful sovereign status. In some ways, it is an echo of the 1993 commonwealth plebiscite definition that offered voters an improved commonwealth with similar trappings of sovereignty.

I have had my doubts about how Washington would view a plebiscite result tainted by large numbers of abstentions or by a large showing for "None of the Above" option. But an important indication was given by Jeffrey Farrow, a top White House aid on Puerto Rico who was here on Friday. Farrow was dismissive of the "None of the Above" option, maintaining that voters who support that option were voting for "no status." That suggests that if the NPP obtains a majority vote on Dec. 13, it will have a powerful weapon in its arsenal as it pursues its statehood drive in 1999. It's no wonder that the NPP, despite the terrible damage of the hurricane, is plunging ahead with the plebiscite.

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