Puerto Rico Governor intent on re-election -- and statehood

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Make no mistake about it: Puerto Rico Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo wants statehood for his Caribbean island. If he wins a second term this coming November, he will put statehood at the top of his priority list.

He expects that Puerto Rico will become a state sometime during the 1980s.

This is the scenario he is outlining these days, at least. In an interview here in Boston, the Governor made it clear he believes the current push for independence for the island is coming more from outside Puerto Rico than from within.

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"There is more noise [on the issue] outside Puerto Rico," he said."But our position is that this is a decision for the people of Puerto Rico to make."

It is clear that he does not believe the people of the island will opt for independence. He noted that in elections and referendums over the past generation or so, Puerto Ricans have repeatedly voted to keep their ties with the United States by supporting either the present commonwealth arrangement or statehood.

In the two decades before his election in 1976, most Puerto Ricans supported commonwealth status, but Governor Romero Barcelo says the tide is turning. The commonwealth arrangement, he says, is "crumbling." One of the reasons islanders' views are shifting is that former Gov. Luis Munoz Marin, the architect of the commonwealth, has largely stepped aside, says Mr. Romero Barcelo.

Like many supporters of statehood, the present governor sees the commonwealth arrangement as a very personal thing -- conceived and implemented by Governor Munoz Marin.

Essentially, commonwealth standing "deprived [Puerto Ricans] of their political rights," Governor Romero Barcelo says. It may have been "a useful period," but its time is over, he adds. "Commonwealth status is just a name. Actually, Puerto Rico is a territory."

On this point, he and the supporters of independence would agree.

But they obviously disagree on what the future should be for the island. Governor Romero Barcelo repeatedly makes the point that independence supporters are a continuing small minority. In a future plebiscite, he suggests, they could muster no more than 10 percent of the vote, and probably less.

The Governor concludes that if he wins re-election -- and he expects he will -- he will schedule a vote on the official status of the island in 1981. If a majority opt for statehood, he promises to quickly file an enabling bill with the US Congress.

The outcome can be decided by slightly more than 50 percent of the votes cast , he says -- nothing overwhelming is necessary. He adds that he would expect supporters of statehood and commonwealth standing together to number in the 90 percent range.

Governor Romero Barcelo holds that improvement of the island's economic picture is one of the reasons he is confident to being re-elected. It is also a reason he believes his views would prevail in a plebiscite.

He ticks off the improvements: His government has restored Puerto Rico's economic base and in the process decreased short-term debt, all the while seeing the island's real economic growth soar.

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