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Orlando Sentinel

Battle On Island's Status Drowns Out Bigger Issues

By Ray Quintanilla

March 6, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Here we go again, debating the issue of political status in Puerto Rico -- as if no other problem on the island merited such attention.

It's a debate that has raged for decades. Though important, it also divides the island and sucks the life out of other important issues for Puerto Rico's nearly 4 million residents. Some of these include finding ways to energize the island's sluggish economy, improve its decaying infrastructure and bolster public education. These crucial issues tend to get drowned out when the island discusses its status.

But here we go.

Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá arrived in Washington, D.C., last week to meet with President Bush's deputy chief of staff and top political adviser, Karl Rove, and others to share ideas for re-examining the island's political status.

The governor is trying to build a consensus for a plebiscite -- a nonbinding referendum on status -- this year. His proposal includes two approaches to address the island's future political status. The first would have voters elect representatives to an islandwide constitutional assembly to hammer out a status for the island and then seek its approval from the U.S. Congress.

The other calls for a special election enabling voters to decide among statehood, independence or remaining in the current commonwealth. Once that outcome is known, the island leaders would take the results to the U.S. Congress and try to convince the House and Senate to act upon them.

Like many other such efforts through the years, this one is likely to end up on the scrap heap. And what will it ultimately accomplish, other than divert public attention from such things as the island's 50 percent high-school-dropout rate, a drinking-water delivery system that's in shambles and a murder rate that boggles the mind?

Even if the governor's plan works out as he envisions, there's no guarantee the U.S. Congress will even want to take up the issue.

You would be more likely to find a paper bag full of $100 bills than a large group of island residents who are willing to give up their U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rican independence.

This past election showed how much influence the island's pro-independence party carries. The party received so few votes, it was disqualified as a viable political group until volunteers gathered thousands of signatures to requalify as an official party.

And consider this: Whether Puerto Rico becomes a state isn't in the hands of island residents. That's up to the U.S. Congress, and so far, the island's status isn't a front-burner issue on the mainland United States.

So that leaves the option of keeping things the way they are. It's not a perfect solution. It creates problems such as this: Puerto Rico soldiers fight and die in Iraq, but they don't have the right to vote for a commander in chief.

Yet it may be the only option with a future. We'll all find out later this year.

This will come to a head sometime this summer, when we will learn whether the U.S. government plans to close Fort Buchanan in Guaynabo -- a military base that funnels more than $100 million into the island's economy every year.

But what do you suppose will be the hot topic of debate around that time?

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