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Portland Oregonian

Court Rulings Take Up Question: How American Is Puerto Rico?

by DAN PERRY, Associated Press

July 22, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Portland Oregonian. All Rights Reserved.

A pair of federal court rulings have challenged Puerto Rico 's peculiar relationship with the United States and revived a century- old question: Just how "American" is this U.S. territory?

One ruling says Puerto Rican residents, who serve in the U.S. military and receive billions in federal funds but have no vote in Washington, should be able to vote for U.S. president. The other says the federal death penalty should not be permitted here as long as Puerto Ricans cannot vote.

Both bolster the argument that things cannot stay as they are in this island of 4 million Spanish speakers, a position apparently held by President Clinton. They also come at a time of rising Puerto Rican nationalism, evident in the movement to expel the U.S. Navy from its Vieques island bombing range.

In the case of Gregorio Igartua de la Rosa vs. the United States of America, U.S. District Court Judge Jaime Pieras called denying Puerto Ricans the vote "unconstitutional and unconscionable.

"The inability to vote represents a form of slavery," he said in his ruling Wednesday.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Casellas ruled that the death penalty for federal crimes does not apply in Puerto Rico because its people have no vote in federal elections.

"It shocks the conscience to impose the ultimate penalty, death, upon American citizens who are denied the right to participate directly or indirectly in the government that enacts and authorizes the imposition of such punishment," Casellas said in the case of Hector Oscar Acosta Martinez and Joel Rivera Alejandro, who face murder charges.

Both rulings were handed down in San Juan, where they seized center stage.

The U.S. government has not executed anyone in Puerto Rico since 1963. The punishment was reinstated by a 1994 federal statute that included Puerto Rico , even though local law forbids executions. In January, the U.S. Justice Department authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Acosta and Rivera.

Senate President Charlie Rodriguez, who supports making Puerto Rico the 51st U.S. state, called for a law allowing Puerto Rico to vote for president in November and send "eight or nine electoral votes" to Congress, regardless of whether they are counted.

Sen. Eudaldo Baez Galib, who opposes statehood, said holding a vote would require a difficult-to-achieve U.S. constitutional amendment.

Galib predicted that Pieras' decision would be overruled in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. But he said both rulings have "an intrinsic value, which is putting on the table all these issues."

The issues were on the White House table in June, when Clinton convened Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, who supports statehood, and the heads of parties favoring independence and the status quo.

A week later, Clinton issued an Independence Day message to Puerto Rico in which he made clear that he supports change:

"This holiday focuses attention on the fact that ( Puerto Ricans ) do not have votes in our national government, although they have lived under that government for more than a century and are U.S. citizens. This fact is the primary reason I am working to enable them to obtain a fully democratic government arrangement if they want one."

The United States wrested Puerto Rico from Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War and granted Puerto Ricans citizenship in 1917. The island's semiautonomous "commonwealth" status as a U.S. territory was adopted in 1952, although Congress has insisted it retains ultimate authority over Puerto Rico 's political status.

Puerto Ricans have held numerous referendums to choose among U.S. statehood, independence or the status quo. The last referendum was in 1998.

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