Puerto Rico election -- sending US signals on future ties

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Stars and Stripes could soon have a 51st star -- if Puerto Rican Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo wins re-election Nov. 4. The pro-statehood governor makes it clear that if he gets a second term in La Fortaleza, the old Spanish gubernational mansion in San Juan, he will move quickly to hold a plebiscite on Puerto Rico's future status.

Opinion polls suggest Puerto Ricans prefer statehood over both the present commonwealth status that links the island to the United States and over full independence for the island. But it is far from clear whether statehood could win an absolute majority of votes against the other two options.

Nor it is clear that Governor Romero Barcelo will win reelection. Although he was an early favorite in the race over pro-commonwealth former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, his campaign has been buffeted by charges that his first administration covered up official wrongdoing.

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Another factor in the voting could be strong Puerto Rican reaction against the US decision to transfer thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees from the mainland to a US Navy base in the south of the island.

All this makes it a tumultuous gubernatorial campaign -- but the voter focus is still on Gov. Romero Barcelo's prospects, since more than anything else they foreshadow the future of this Caribbean island.

All this makes it a tumultuous gubernatorial campaign -- but the voter focus is still on Gov. Romero Barcelo's prospects, since more than anything else they foreshadow the future of this Caribbean island.

Both President Carter and Ronald Reagan vow to respect the wishes of Puerto Ricans on the status of the island. But all of the options -- statehood, commonwealth, and independence -- present problems for the US that the next administration will have to handle.

Independence, for example, would threaten the massive $12 billion US investment on the island and possibly handicap US political and military strategy in the Caribbean. The US Navy's Caribbean command, for instance, is headquartered in Puerto Rico, and both the Army and the Air Force have sizable bases.

Commonwealth advocates want more autonomy for the island -- including the right to control immigration and to make some foreign policy decisions -- rights that no other US state or territory now has.

But even Governor Romero Barcelo's statehood plan could prove unpalatable to the US Congress, which has to approve any statehood petition. The governor has promised Puerto Ricans that statehood would quickly bring more federal funds to the island, but that their own federal tax payments would be phased in gradually over 20 years. Such a program would initially exempt residents of the 51st state from taxes paid by all other US citizens.

At the moment, Puerto Ricans do not pay any taxes on income earned on the island. The commonwealth arrangement makes the Puerto Rican a US citizen, eligible for the draft and able to vote in presidential primaries, but not in the presidential election itself. Thus islanders have a say in who will be the Democratic and Republican candidates, but do not have such a say in the Nov. 4 vote. Nor do Puerto Ricans have voting representation in Congress.

It is a unique US citizenship; one Governor Romero Barcelo wants to replace with statehood.

Whether he will get his wish remains to be seen. Scandals racking his administration in recent months have put a dent in his prospects. One scandal involves a Puerto Rican prosecutor exonerated by the island justice department of charges that he had links with organized crime.

The second and potentially more embarrassing case to the governor and his Partido Nuevo Progresista involves charges that police murdered two young advocates of independence. Justice departments of the island and the US initially cleared the police of wrongdoing; but now a top police agent wants to recant his pro-government testimony, which would force both agencies to reopen the case.

These scandals may do more harm to Governor Romero Barcelo than campaign debate about the island's soaring crime rate, its 17.7 percent unemployment rate , and other economic problems.

Many Puerto Ricans may be longing for simpler days when Gov. Luis Munoz Marin and Partido Popular Democratico ruled. This could be a help to gubernatorial candidate Hernandez Colon. Governor Munoz Marin, or "Don Luis" as he was widely known, was the architect of commonwealth status for Puerto Rico. PPD candidate Hernandez Colon, seeking a comeback, is making much of his relationship to Don Luis, who passed on in April of this year.

although two independence candidates are also in the race, they are expected to win less than 10 percent of the vote.

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