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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Confusion Over the Puerto Rican Vote
December 25, 1998
©Copyright 1998 The New York Times
The only clear message from the recent plebiscite in Puerto
Rico is that the question of the island's political future remains
deeply divisive. Congress's failure to sponsor orderly balloting
that would give the island's 3.8 million voters a meaningful say
about their political status has not helped.
Earlier this year the House passed a bill that would have set
up a Congressionally approved referendum for Puerto Ricans on
whether the island should retain its current commonwealth status,
seek statehood or become an independent nation. If statehood or
independence received a majority vote the Federal Government would
develop a transition plan, leading to a vote by Congress for a
status change within 10 years. Both the Republican and Democratic
parties have long supported Puerto Rican self-determination. But
the Senate blocked the legislation and simply said it would review
the outcome of any nonbinding local vote.
The recent ballot, prepared by the Puerto Rican government, was
crowded with five options: statehood, commonwealth, independence,
free association or none of the above. Negative campaigns mounted
by both the statehood and commonwealth camps contributed to "none
of the above" picking up 50.2 percent of the vote. Much of
that was a protest vote from the pro-commonwealth camp, which
saw the ballot as misleading. The statehood option, championed
by Gov. Pedro Rosselló, received 46.5 percent of the votes,
far more than the other options but not enough to win.
Much of the debate has focused on what is possible under a commonwealth
status. Puerto Ricans currently have American citizenship, and
are subject to Federal laws and the draft. But they do not pay
Federal income tax and do not vote for President or elect voting
members of Congress. Some commonwealth supporters fear that statehood
would jeopardize the island's Spanish-based culture, and have
argued that getting enhanced rights from the Federal Government
is possible without becoming a state. Pro-statehood advocates
reject that position as unrealistic.
Congress can reduce the confusion by crafting a referendum with
input from Puerto Rican leaders on all sides that accurately reflects
the options available. "None of the above" does not
move Puerto Ricans any closer to defining their future.