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THE SAN JUAN STAR
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
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
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.