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Calderon Unveils Plan for Enhancing Status

by Ivan Roman

August 2, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- What would a new and improved Commonwealth be like?

That was the question tossed around after San Juan Mayor Sila Maria Calderon announced to tens of thousands of Popular Democratic Party rank and file last Sunday that she proposes a "more developed" Commonwealth.

If elected governor next year, she pledged to seek a consensus on how to approach Congress for a change in political status.

The Commonwealth, established in 1952 and known in Spanish as Estado Libre Asociado (free associated state), grants certain autonomy to Puerto Rico, but is subject to the rule of Congress, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution. Critics use the word "colony," an epithet many PDP members reject.

But many within the party's ranks recognize more autonomy is needed. The party's governing board proposes a Commonwealth that would recognize Puerto Rico's own culture and nationality, but within the context of a permanent union with the United States that establishes a common market, currency and defense.

An example of increased autonomy would be for Puerto Rico to have more international trade presence and not be subject to coastwise shipping laws, which significantly increase the cost of imports and exports and force the island to use U.S.-built ships and American merchant marines.

An exact definition of what additional powers to ask for would come in 2002. Right now, what is important, Calderon said, is to reach consensus among all ideological sectors to ask Congress for a change in status.

"Instead of focusing on getting some partisan political advantage in Washington, we must find a way to speak with one voice," Calderon said.

Commonwealth critics were quick to pounce. Gov. Pedro Rossello, who pushed through two local plebiscites in which his statehood formula lost, said he would be happy to have Calderon ask Congress to move on this issue. Congress' failure to take action last year led him to force a plebiscite in December and recently to approach the United Nations.

Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo, a pro-statehood stalwart, defined the PDP proposal as an "associated republic," which he called a valid alternative away from colonialism. Rossello said Calderon was talking about "free association," which also shows some movement. Both alternatives got few votes in last year's plebiscites.

Not so fast, Calderon said on Tuesday. Her proposal is neither. It is a Commonwealth with more powers, a permanent union with the United States and irrevocable U.S. citizenship.

Romero Barcelo calls that nonsense. "If she insists on fooling the people, creating a fantasy of Puerto Rican sovereignty with U.S. citizenship, that's not part of the U.S. system," he said.

U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano said he backs any future for the island that removes it from its "colonial status," but this proposal did not seem to do it.

"The party's leadership does not want to admit that the future of the Commonwealth that their first leader Luis Munoz Marin wanted is the associated republic," Serrano said. Munoz Marin was governor for 16 years and a key figure in negotiations with the United States when forming the current Commonwealth status.

PDP leaders defended the party's and Calderon's proposal, citing the importance of achieving a consensus on the procedures instead of repeatedly forcing plebiscites on voters.

"It's obvious that Serrano is following the same script as Romero Barcelo," said Acevedo Vila, who is one of the PDP's candidates vying to campaign against Romero Barcelo for the post of Resident Commissioner.

In the charges and countercharges all week on this issue, however, the question at the top has yet to be answered.

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