PUERTO Ricans lost their fight in Washington earlier this year for a plebiscite that would change the United States authority over their island, but the issue of Puerto Rico's status has not died, at least not here.Lack of support in Washington last February killed in committee the US Senate's proposal for a plebiscite that would have allowed Puerto Ricans to vote on their status. Puerto Rico is now under quasi-colonial, "commonwealth" status, which gives its residents US citizenship but not the right to vote in federal elections. But many would prefer the increased economic advantages of becoming a state. The debate over the country's status has the ruling party and major opposition party playing political hardball. Gov. Raphael Hernandez Colon and his party favor continued commonwealth status, perhaps with greater powers for Puerto Rico. The opposition New Progressive Party wants statehood. There is little support for a third option of full independence.
Issue could dethrone "Status is the most important issue facing the government," says Ricardo Alegria, director of the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. He predicts the pro-statehood New Progressive Party will use the status issue to attempt to dethrone Governor Hernandez and his Popular Democratic Party in the 1992 elections for governor and the legislature. The New Progressive Party is already moving. This week, it presented its case for statehood to the United Nations Committee on Decolonization and requested that the committee pressure Washington. But Governor Hernandez was ready. Right before the New Progressive Party made its move, he announced his own initiative: a proposal for a referendum to be held during the November, 1992 elections. The referendum would set rules for changing Puerto Rico's status. Voters would not have the choice of a straight yes or no on the question of statehood. They would have to choose among the options of commonwealth, statehood, or independence, making it difficult for statehood to win a clear majority. However, the referendum needs the support of opposition parties to be approved, and initial reaction by the parties has been cool. There is a good chance the New Progressive Party will beat Hernandez in the elections. "Widespread suspicion exists that a major purpose of the referendum proposal is to head off a possible post-1992 move toward statehood," says Harold Lidin, a journalist and historian in Puerto Rico who is publishing a three-volume study of the status issue. Opinion polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans are split between statehood and commonwealth status. "The status question is in the bones of the people of Puerto Rico," says Lidin. "It's a pot that boils sometimes and simmers sometimes, but it will never go away." The pot has been heating up since 1989. President Bush, who has long supported statehood for Puerto Rico, set off the present debate, when he called in his 1989 inaugural address for Congress to allow a plebiscite on the issue. The status issue has roiled Puerto Rican politics since before Spain ceded the island to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. In 1950, two people died when Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate President Truman. Two years later, Washington granted Puerto Rico full authority over internal affairs and elevated its status from a territory to a commonwealth in free association with the United States. That didn't please those who wanted independence. In 1954 nationalists took over the US Congress and injured five members. But apparently most Puerto Ricans were satisfied. In a 1967 plebiscite, they favored commonwealth status 3 to 2 over statehood, with less than 1 percent voting for independence. During the 1980s, people here worried more about everyday issues - jobs, crime, and health - than about status. But the status question is never far from their minds. Puerto Ricans are proud of their Hispanic heritage and sensitive to the charge they are selling out. The new "Spanish only" law illustrates that concern. In April, as a gesture toward protecting Puerto Rican culture, Governor Hernandez signed the law, which doesn't interfere with private business but mandates that government offices operate in Spanish. Commonwealth supporters argue that commonwealth status allows Puerto Rico to protect its Hispanic culture while benefiting economically from close US ties. "The commonwealth arrangement suits us well, but an expanded commonwealth would suit us even better," Hernandez said in an interview. The island's residents pay no US income taxes yet receive most of the welfare and transfer payments that go to residents of the 50 states. These payments total $7.7 billion a year - about 30 percent of Puerto Rico's gross national product. Commonwealth supporters warn that if Puerto Rico were to become a state, residents would have to pay federal income taxes, and US-based businesses would lose their income-tax exemption for Puerto Rican operations. That exemption has fueled the island's industrialization.
Business advantages Statehood supporters counter, saying that benefits from the exemption would be replaced by the business advantages of being a full-fledged part of a wealthy country. In addition, Puerto Ricans would receive $3 billion or so a year in increased welfare and transfer payments. And island residents would win the right to vote for president. The New Progressive Party argues that statehood serves poor Puerto Ricans best. Party president Pedro Rossello said in a recent interview, "There never has been a state whose economy has gone backwards once it joined the USA." Puerto Ricans see irony in this appeal to the UN, because the New Progressive Party is more closely aligned with the United States than the other parties. Carlos Diaz Olivo, who prepared the party's presentation to the UN, said the party is going to the UN out of frustration because direct negotiations with Congress failed. However, with Puerto Rican public opinion so evenly divided between statehood and the commonwealth option, a quick resolution of the status debate is unlikely in Puerto Rico. A decision to move quickly in Washington is even less likely. "Congress won't consider Puerto Rican status again unless the Puerto Ricans can develop a clear consensus about what they want," says a congressional staffer who follows the issue. Even consensus would not relieve all Congress's concerns. Puerto Rican voting patterns show widespread support for the Democratic Party. "Republicans are afraid that if Puerto Rico is granted statehood, it would mean six new Democrats in the House and two new Democratic senators," the congressional staffer says. "That's the main reason why the plebiscite proposal failed in February."