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New Outlook For Puerto Rico

Despite a recent electoral setback, many backers of independence for the island think they will prevail.

By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer

January 23, 2005
Copyright © 2005 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- In the long-running debate about the political status of this U.S. territory, the defining conflict in island politics, independence long has finished a distant third to commonwealth and statehood.

The failure of the main independence party to win enough votes in November to stay on the ballot for 2008 seemed only the latest in a series of setbacks for the movement.

But as Washington signals that the days of commonwealth may be nearing an end, while questions persist about whether Congress ever will accept this Spanish-speaking Caribbean island as the 51st state of the union, some independentistas see events turning in their favor.

Which is why a month after finishing his customary distant third in Puerto Rico's gubernatorial election, this time with less than 3 percent of the vote, independence leader Rubén Berríos looked out to his supporters and declared victory.

In the weeks after the November election, volunteers of his Puerto Rican Independence Party had gathered the signatures of more than 100,000 island voters -- enough to get the PIP back on the ballot for 2008. Now Berríos was thanking the faithful for pulling off the "political feat" that would enable the most prominent independentista organization in this U.S. territory to retain its major-party status.

Critics say the party's failure for the first time in 36 years to earn enough votes to maintain its place on the ballot calls into question the future of a movement that once represented the aspirations of nearly half the population.

"I think that the independence movement has been weakened dramatically," says statehood advocate Kenneth McClintock, president of the island Senate. "I don't think independence has any future."

But independentistas see Puerto Rico's eventual separation from the United States as less a matter of electoral politics than of historical inevitability.

In spite of the election results -- and the failure of independence to garner even 5 percent of the vote in any of the three plebiscites on the island's political status since 1967 -- Manuel Rodríguez Orellana sees independence as the only future for Puerto Rico.

"It is the United States that will decide, and I don't see any good reason for Americans to want Puerto Rico to be a state," says Rodríguez Orellana, secretary of the Puerto Rican Independence Party for North American affairs. "Why should you take in as a state a Latin American nation of the Caribbean that is Spanish-speaking, to whom you would have to pay more than any other state and receive less, and give them a larger congressional representation than more than half the states?"

For partisan Washington, there's another issue: That representation -- two senators, six representatives and eight electoral votes -- is likely to be dominated by Democrats. Puerto Rico would be a blue state.

With the declining strategic value of the island after the end of the Cold War and of exercises on Vieques, Washington does appear to be rethinking its relationship with Puerto Rico.

Republicans and Democrats have characterized commonwealth as a transitional status, not a permanent solution. A White House task force is studying acceptable status options for the island; for its co-chair,

President Bush chose an adviser who once said islanders eventually would have to choose between statehood and independence.

But if commonwealth is transitional and statehood is unlikely, independence means cutting loose 3.9 million U.S. citizens, the great majority of whom have voted consistently to maintain or strengthen ties with the United States -- not to sever them.

It was not always thus. Residents today still commemorate the uprising of 1868, when several hundred separatists briefly seized the central mountain town of Lares from the Spanish authorities and declared a short-lived Republic of Puerto Rico before withdrawing.

Some independentistas welcomed the 1898 U.S. invasion of the island during the Spanish-American War. But when Washington held on to the island as a military base, the separatists redirected their rhetoric against the United States. By the 1930s the pro-independence Puerto Rican Liberal Party was the island's most popular political party, winning 46 percent of the vote in the 1936 election for the island's delegate to Congress.

Washington only drew its possession closer. Congress granted U.S. citizenship to islanders in 1917, as the United States entered World War I, and cemented the current commonwealth relationship in 1952, in the early days of the Cold War.

Concerted efforts by officials in San Juan and Washington combined to undermine the separatists. A gag law chilled advocacy for independence, and the Puerto Rico Police Department and the FBI infiltrated law-abiding independentista organizations, kept files on their members and in some cases disrupted their activities.

The island economy, meanwhile, was growing increasingly dependent on federal handouts. In the three status plebiscites that have been held by the island government, voters in 1967, 1993 and 1998 opted to maintain commonwealth status over seeking statehood, with independence finishing a distant third each time.

Berríos -- known here simply as "Rubén" -- gained exposure and acclaim in recent years for his leadership in the broadly supported campaign to end Navy practice bombing on Vieques. But earning just 2.67 percent of the vote November in his fifth run for governor -- less than the 3 percent he needed to keep the party on the ballot -- was a new low. It was the worst finish yet by a PIP candidate for governor and the first time since 1968 that the party failed to win the votes necessary to stay registered.

There was some good news for the PIP. Its at-large candidates for the island House and Senate, incumbent Rep. Víctor García San Inocencio and attorney María de Lourdes Santiago, once again earned more votes than any of their opponents.

But with former Gov. Pedro Rosselló making a strong bid for another term -- and pledging to resume his campaign for statehood -- thousands of traditional independentista voters cast their gubernatorial votes instead for commonwealth-supporting Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, seen as having the best chance of beating him.

Rodríguez Orellana, the PIP official, says the outcome caught the party by surprise.

"This was kind of a wake-up call for many of our members," he says. "We all sort of took for granted that we would retain our franchise. We didn't foresee this hurricane Rosselló that came through, or the strength of it."

The island-based political analyst Juan Manuel García Passalacqua says the successful courting of independentistas by Acevedo Vilá has caused a "crisis within the independence party."

"That phenomenon is merely emerging," García Passalacqua says.

Nicole Ortíz, a business student at the University of Puerto Rico, calls herself an independentista -- but did not vote for Berríos.

"The party of independentistas here, they're satisfied with just a small percentage of the votes," she says. "They don't really want to win. That's what the people see."

Ortíz, who voted for Rogelio Figueroa of the upstart Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico party, says she wants to see someone other than Berríos leading the PIP.

"He doesn't let any younger people with other ideals come in," she says. "Let another person run for governor. I think people are tired of seeing him always there."

Rodríguez Orellana, who has heard the criticism before, says the party has welcomed and promoted young members. He cites the party's electoral commissioner, Juan Dalmau, and Santiago, the first PIP woman to win a seat in the Senate. But he says Berríos is the leader.

"I didn't see anybody asking Gandhi for his resignation, or Mandela or Arafat, for that matter," he says. "While we are an electoral party, we're also a national liberation movement. That makes us different from the other parties."

Rodríguez Orellana sees Washington pushing the issue sooner rather than later. Since the election, the party has reclaimed its place on the ballot.

"I think that we're already picking up," Rodríguez Orellana says. "People are in a confident mood. They've been energized by the need to go out and get signatures. I can't say we're in great shape, because it's impossible, but I think we're doing OK.

"Things are changing. The important thing is for us to be there."

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