Puerto Rico politics splash across US

Statehood or independence? It is this issue in Puerto Rico that sparked the brief occupations of the Carter-Mondale campaign headquarters in Chicago and the Bush headquarters in New York March 15 by Puerto Rican extremists advocating independence for the island.

Both President Carter and Republican candidate George Bush are linked with the pro-statehood cause. Mr. Bush, advocating statehood, won the Republican primary here Feb. 17. And pro-statehood Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo is regarded as being in the Carter camp.

President Carter was battling Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Puerto Rico's Democratic primary March 16. The Senator is thought to favor continuation of the present commonwealth arrangement, which is supported by the Popular Democratic Party.

Continuation of the commonwealth status is the third alternative open to Puerto Rico. Yet it is ignored by those favoring statehood and independence, and appears to have less support today than when it was inaugurated 33 years ago.

Senator Kennedy was expected to outpoll the President in Sunday's primary, but Puerto Rico's often-criticized practice of double-voting -- which permits islanders who voted in the earlier Republican primary to vote again in the Democratic primary -- could help President Carter. Republicans on the island tend to vote for state-hood.

Island observers say the mainland terrorist attacks just before the Democratic primary were aimed at focusing attention on the small but vocal independence cause.

The debate over the island's status is clearly a major issue here. It is also an old issued that, for many islanders in recent years, has become chiefly a contest between statehood and independence -- a debate that ignores the existing commonwealth or free-state option that links the island to the US.

Both statehooders and "independentistas" say commonwealth status is not a choice, but rather a temporary situation that must give way to a permanent solution.

Never mind that Puerto Rico as a commonwealth has achieved an economic viability that many islanders say would not have been reached under any other system, particularly not under independence.

And never mind that as a commonwealth Puerto Rico already has a permanent tie with the US, a point repeatedly made by former Gov. Luis Munoz Marin, he "architect" of commonwealth. the current arrangement preserves Puerto Rico's Spanish culture better than Statehood would, Mr. Munoz Marin says.

Many Puerto Rican statehooders and independence supporters argue, however, that the commonwealth is an outdated system.

Pro-statehood Governor Romero Barcelo says flatly that commonwealth must be rejected. He promises to call for a referendum on the issue if he wins re-election this year.

Whether it is a choice between statehood and independence, of between those two and a continuation of commonwealth status, a vote on the issue is likely before the decade is out. At the moment, none of the options would win a clear majority.

Independence is not expected to garner much more than 10 percent of the vote in a plebiscite. It might even win less, despite the noisy terrorist tactics of its supporters.

A tip-off too the outcome of the status debate could well come in November, when a race for the governorship pits Governor Romero Barcelo, seeking a second term, against former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, a supporter of commonwealth and protege of former Governor Munoz Marin, who is attempting a comeback.

At the moment, Governor Romero Barcelo is given an edge. But island politics have a way of changing fast.

Even if he wins, there is not certainty that the majority of Puerto Ricans support the statehood that the Governor advocates. Yet a victory for him would suggest that islanders are leaning toward statehood. And he had made his position clear. He is campaigning for statehood, something he did not do in the 1976 election.

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