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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
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'
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
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
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.