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Statehood Backers Receive Boost

by Michelle Faul

December 15, 1998
©Copyright 1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Supporters of statehood for Puerto Rico got an unexpected boost from President Clinton, who suggested that their cause was not dead despite its defeat in a public referendum .

That, together with a supportive statement from pro- statehood Republican Rep. Dan Burton, bolstered Gov. Pedro Rossello's plans to persevere with his crusade to make the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island the 51st state.

Rossello argued at a news conference Monday that the statehood movement had won in Sunday's nonbinding referendum, even though it lost to a "none of the above" option backed by supporters of the island's existing commonwealth status, 50 percent to 47 percent.

The independence option won only 2 percent - underscoring that while Puerto Ricans may be ambivalent about statehood, they have little interest in ending a century of U.S. rule.

The pro-commonwealth party backed "none of the above" because it disagreed with the definition of commonwealth listed on the ballot. The definition stated that Puerto Rico is under the full powers of the U.S.

Congress and suggested that Congress could revoke the islanders' U.S. citizenship.

Statehood, Rossello claimed, won a huge majority among people who chose one of the actual definitions.

Backers of commonwealth status and the local media heaped scorn on Rossello's argument.

But Clinton - despite impeachment proceedings in Washington and the rigors of a peacemaking trip to the Middle East - found time to issue a statement that noted that "a majority of the vote was not for any of the options."

"Among the rest, the overwhelming majority supported statehood," Clinton said. "I remain committed to implementing a majority choice for Puerto Rico 's future status ." He pledged to work with Congress and Puerto Ricans "to clarify the choice."

Rossello told a news conference that "once the new Congress is constituted, that will be the appropriate time to send the results ... saying to the Congress and the president, 'You respond to these results."'

He said that response might include another referendum .

Rossello's biggest rival, pro-commonwealth San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon, said Monday that her Popular Democratic Party might agree to another vote - but only if a victory for commonwealth guaranteed no further challenges to that status, which the United States imposed as a temporary measure 46 years ago. In the last referendum, in 1993, the commonwealth option beat statehood by 49 percent to 46 percent.

The semi-autonomous arrangement devised in 1952 allows Puerto Rico some trappings of an independent nation, like an Olympic team. And although they pay no federal taxes, Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship and received billions of dollars in federal aid.

Burton, R-Ind., warned Monday that given the minuscule support - less than 1 percent - won by the commonwealth definition on the ballot, "and given the enormous economic burden placed on the overtaxed American people, the Congress should, and more than likely will, re-evaluate the federal subsidy of the current status ."

Burton anticipated "a long process" that ultimately would offer Puerto Ricans just two choices: independence or statehood .

That scenario, one many Puerto Ricans would prefer to avoid, would likely produce a victory for statehood since Puerto Ricans prize their U.S. citizenship.

"We cherish our U.S. citizenship - but we are Puerto Ricans," Calderon said Monday.

Puerto Rico -born Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, also said the commonwealth arrangement is "colonial" and that Puerto Ricans should choose between statehood and independence.

But at least one U.S. lawmaker said it was unlikely that Washington would accept Rossello's reasoning.

"It is disappointing to see the statehood forces subvert the will of the people now that the balloting is over and now that the statehood option has clearly failed," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat of Puerto Rican descent.

Rossello called Sunday's vote in frustration after legislation to hold a binding referendum died in the Senate after passing the House by one vote. The measure was blocked by Republicans who fear that making a Puerto Rican state would send mainly Democrats to Congress.

Opponents also argue that statehood would cost the federal government even more, while the majority of Puerto Ricans would earn too little to pay federal taxes.

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