Puerto Rico's Commonwealth Status under Fire: Independence, Statehood May Be on '98 Ballot

Article excerpt

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - In July 1898, Gen. Nelson A. Miles, vowing to bestow upon the impoverished people of Puerto Rico "the blessings of the liberal institutions of our government," landed his 16,000 U.S. troops at the sleepy fishing village of Guanica, along the island's southern shore.

That fateful event marked the end of Puerto Rico's short-lived autonomy, launched the Spanish-American War and sparked a seemingly endless debate over Puerto Rico's political status.

Earlier this month, the debate took on an added dimension when Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, introduced a bill calling for a congressionally mandated plebiscite by the end of 1998 - a full 100 years after the landing at Guanica.

Under the so-called U.S.-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, co-sponsored by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, voters would choose one of two paths to full self-government: statehood or independence. If either receives a majority of votes, that choice would have to be reaffirmed twice more over a 10-year transition period.

At the same time, unrelated efforts by the Clinton administration and many Republican members of Congress to abolish the U.S. tax-code loophole that keeps Puerto Rico's economy humming and provides low-cost financing to neighboring Caribbean islands - Section 936 - are weakening the positions of those who back continued commonwealth status for Puerto Rico's 3.7 million people.

Though much can change between now and 1998, the Young bill doesn't include the commonwealth status quo among the options.

That's just fine with the ruling New Progressive Party, which wants to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which dreams of a Republic of Puerto Rico free of U.S. political and economic domination.

"This legislation finally recognizes what most of us knew already, [that] the only options that can remove the stigma of U.S. colonialism and guarantee all Puerto Ricans equality and dignity are statehood or independence," said Charles Rodriguez, majority leader of Puerto Rico's Senate.

"I agree 100 percent with the bill's findings that the 1993 plebiscite left unresolved Puerto Rico's political status. It clearly recognizes Congress' constitutional responsibility to advance that process by defining actual status options open to us," he said.

At congressional hearings held last week in San Juan, leaders of the island's three major political parties - who are all running for governor in November - argued their respective cases.

Unlike the U.S. mainland, where social and economic issues define the Democratic and Republican parties, political status is the main determinant in Puerto Rico.

The pro-statehood New Progressive Party of incumbent Gov. Pedro Rossello is ahead in the polls, with about 45 percent of the electorate. He is followed by San Juan Mayor Hector Luis Acevedo of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party with 30 percent and Sen. David Noriega of the Puerto Rican Independence Party with 6 percent. Another 11 percent are undecided.

If the vote takes place, it wouldn't be the first time islanders had a say in their future status.

In 1952, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly to become a U.S. commonwealth, a status that retains U.S. citizenship for the island's inhabitants but exempts them from paying federal income tax.

A second referendum in 1967 affirmed commonwealth status. And even though the island's current governor, Mr. Rossello, is an avid statehooder, the November 1993 plebiscite showed that a slight majority of Puerto Ricans were still opposed to statehood.

TAX LAW FAVORS BUSINESS

One of the commonwealth's biggest strengths derives from Section 936, the backbone of Puerto Rico's factory-based economy.

Under Section 936 of the U. …