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Puerto Rico's Statehood Push Is In Shambles

By Ray Quintanilla | Sentinel Staff Writer

July 24, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- In just six months, the movement pushing for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state has gone from reveling in an impressive election victory to the brink of total disarray.

The movement -- historically backed by the island's most affluent constituencies -- is mired in confusion. An internal dispute has split the movement into two rival camps, and no one knows how it will end. The uncertainty has virtually paralyzed Puerto Rico's Legislature. Leaders of the two camps have even reported threats.

These events raise the question: Is Puerto Rico's pro-statehood movement dead?

The island's New Progressive Party, the one political organization that has championed statehood for Puerto Rico since the 1960s, is on the rocks. If a bitter dispute continues to tear that party apart, the cause may go down with it.

"We haven't seen anything so profound as this in Puerto Rico's history," said Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, a veteran political analyst and Puerto Rico historian. "This statehood movement is in serious trouble, and the fallout is going to be felt on the island and across the United States."

If the party implodes, García Passalacqua says, its members would be faced with some unappealing options. They could join with supporters of one of the two existing parties -- one backing independence for the island, and the other backing the island's current commonwealth status.

Or they could leave Puerto Rico altogether for Florida or other stateside locations.

Statehood proponents say the party's problems are really "nothing to worry about."

Don't forget, they say, last fall's elections put them in control of a majority of seats in the island's House and Senate, the first time that has happened.

But they acknowledge the split is one of the deepest since the pro-statehood party was led to prominence in the 1960s by former Gov. Luis Ferré.

The dispute is not ideological; it's personal. It centers on infighting between followers of Senate President Kenneth McClintock, representing the NPP's moderate wing, and the fiery pro-statehooder Pedro Rosselló, a former governor.

It began in February when Rosselló, who had narrowly lost a bid to return to the governor's mansion, filed for a vacancy in the island's upper chamber. Since then, Rosselló has been trying to unseat McClintock on grounds that he would be a stronger advocate for Puerto Rico statehood than the current Senate president.

Statehood for Puerto Rico is already an uphill fight. The ongoing dispute on the island, in which neither statehooders nor commonwealth supporters have clearly prevailed, makes it unlikely statehood for Puerto Rico will get a hearing in the U.S. Congress anytime soon.

"There just isn't much discussion about statehood for Puerto Rico here in Washington, D.C.," said Barry Bosworth, a Brookings Institution economist who specializes in Puerto Rico. "It's not even on the table in terms of priorities that need to get done in the nation's capital."

The infighting in Puerto Rico inside the pro-statehood party certainly is not helping the cause, Bosworth said.

Manuel Mirabal, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Puerto Rican Coalition, said the pro-statehood party's problems have brought a new level of uncertainty to the island and their No. 1 cause.

"To a certain extent, it's just Puerto Rican politics, but on the other hand you have to wonder where this is going to go," Mirabal said. "Anyone who says they know how it will end is being premature; it's just that uncertain."

Still, he added, those who back statehood would have a difficult time allying themselves with any other political party or giving up the cause.

It's no secret Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland tend to favor statehood for the island, rather than the other two alternatives, he added.

The infighting within the New Progressive Party escalated in April when Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who backs retaining Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, vetoed a bill calling for a referendum that would make clear whether Puerto Rico wants to become a state. Acevedo Vilá has said he favors a constitutional assembly to address the status question.


The pro-statehood movement's next step only widened the gap between the Rosselló and McClintock camps.

Rosselló favored retaliation by obstructing the governor's legislative agenda and holding up action on Puerto Rico's 2006 budget. McClintock favored a less hostile approach that eventually sent Puerto Rico's budget back to the governor with changes.

Pro-statehood party leaders siding with Rosselló now have begun expelling a handful of lawmakers from the New Progressive Party on grounds they too often side with McClintock.

In the meantime, officials in Puerto Rico's Justice Department said they're investigating whether Rosselló or his backers illegally forced a senator from his seat so Rosselló could take his spot in the Legislature.

Both pre-statehood leaders have publicly worried that the political fight might become violent.

Rosselló recently told investigators he received a death threat via the U.S. mail. The letter singled out Rosselló and one of his top aides at the NPP offices. The note reportedly read: "Leave or we will kill you."

A few months ago, McClintock told reporters he was being followed and was worried about his personal safety.

For his part, McClintock said he remains hopeful about the statehood movement's future. The NPP was able to recover during its previous split in the mid-1980s, he said.

"That was a debacle, but I don't believe we are headed for anything like that," McClintock said, adding that there's still plenty of time to restore unity to the pro-statehood party.

What needs immediate attention from the entire party, he added, is finding a way to erase the party's $3 million debt. And it will be nearly impossible for a divided movement to do that, he added.

"That's something we have to work on," McClintock said. "It's going to be a real challenge."

As for the party going under, or disgruntled party members flocking to other parties or to the U.S. mainland: "It's still very early" to talk about such things, he said.

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