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THE WASHINGTON POST
Senate Hearings On Puerto Rico's Status Sought Amid
by Lynn Duke
September 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE WASHINGTON POST. All Rights Reserved.
Still roiled by opposition to the presidential clemencies recently
granted to Puerto Rican militants, New York politicians of Puerto
Rican heritage have asked the Senate to hold public hearings on
the ultimate political status of Puerto Rico just as it is holding
hearings on the clemencies.
Seizing the moment to put forward another issue that has rumbled,
though less explosively than clemencies, in the prospective Senate
campaign of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the 15 legislators
also want the Senate to hold hearings on the Navy's use of Vieques
Island, off Puerto Rico. The Navy has used Vieques as its East
Coast firing range for several decades but was forced to suspend
operations in April after protesters converged on it when one
civilian was killed and four others were hurt from a bomb that
went off target.
"We believe that your present hearings on the president's
clemency toward the Puerto Rican political prisoners focuses on
the symptom rather than the fundamental problem that this Senate
has failed to address: the ultimate political status of Puerto
Rico," the 15 legislators wrote to Senate Majority Leader
Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on Thursday. They include two Democratic
members of Congress, Reps. Jose E. Serrano and Nydia M. Velasquez.
Puerto Rican leaders were deeply offended when their long-term
effort to win presidential clemencies for 16 Puerto Rican nationalists
imprisoned since the 1970s and early 1980s degenerated into a
political firestorm that has led to hearings.
President Clinton offered the clemencies in early August, on
the grounds that none of the 16 was convicted for a violent act
that injured or killed anyone and that the sentences were excessive.
But clemency opponents, especially Republicans, labeled the
offer a bald attempt to win New York's Puerto Rican votes for
Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign. Others, including Sen. Daniel
Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), believed that the offer contradicted
the president's stand against terrorism.
When Hillary Clinton said she opposed the clemency offer, she
was criticized for what was widely perceived as a political move
to distance herself from a controversy. She has not taken a position
on Vieques, saying she would await a presidential panel's findings
These issues, say Serrano and others, stem from the unresolved
question of Puerto Rico's status after 100 years of being, in
effect, a U.S. territory. For the past 47 years, its status has
been as a commonwealth.
Puerto Ricans on the island are U.S. citizens and subject to
military service but pay no federal taxes, cannot vote in presidential
elections and are represented in Congress by a delegate with no
Last year, the House passed a bill that would have set the
terms for a Puerto Rican vote to seek and implement a final political
status. The Senate objected, however, and refused to allow formal
recognition of a Puerto Rican vote.
A Puerto Rican referendum was conducted in December, but its
outcome was inconclusive. A narrow majority (50.2 percent) voted
for a category called "none of the above," which was
put forward as a protest against change, and 46.5 percent voted