Change, Though Certain, Is in No Hurry to Come to Puerto Rico


For much of the last 100 years, attention paid to this U.S. territory far out in the Caribbean Sea has reflected the island’s share of the Earth: It’s minuscule.

Yet, 3.8 million U.S. citizens are crowded onto this tropical isle--and more than half of them are dissatisfied and clamoring for change. Some want their homeland to be made the 51st state, while others demand that the United States abandon what they call one of the world’s last colonies and free Puerto Rico to become an independent nation.

The concerns of a distant, Spanish-speaking island beset with problems of violent crime, drug trafficking and high unemployment might easily be ignored. Just 110 miles long and 35 miles wide, this island has no vote on the floor of Congress and thus no political clout. But the status of Puerto Rico, seized from Spain 100 years ago this weekend, is back on the agenda in Washington.

At a rally Saturday in Guanica marking the centenary, the pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello announced a December referendum on the island’s status, even as the U.S. Congress continues to debate the issue. The House of Representatives has approved a vote, and a similar bill is pending in the Senate.


“If, after 100 years, the U.S. Senate does not possess the will to put an end to a century of colonialism, Puerto Rico does,” Rossello told tens of thousands of supporters waving U.S. and Puerto Rican flags.

Although President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have led bipartisan support for the bills, hardly anyone believes that the vexing problem of what to do with Puerto Rico will be solved any time soon. Even if a plebiscite is held later this year, the most optimistic timetable for admitting the island to the Union is given in decades, not years.

A Lone Voice for Independence

Nonetheless, the level of unrest over U.S. intentions toward Puerto Rico has never been higher. A rash of terrorist bombings, the anniversary and a bitter labor strike have galvanized feelings of national pride among a people who may carry Yanqui passports but who feel Latin American in their souls.


“Puerto Rico’s heart is not American. It is Puerto Rican,” said Sen. Ruben Berrios Martinez, for 21 years the only elected member of the island’s congress who favors independence. “Puerto Ricans are not interested in being assimilated. The Spanish language is not negotiable. We will never become a state.”

But statehood is exactly the solution that Rossello backs to solve the political ambiguity of commonwealth, which he argues has turned the island into a “disenfranchised ghetto.” Half of all families here receive food vouchers, and the $8,000 per capita income is one-third that of the 50 United States.

In a 1993 plebiscite on the island’s status, statehood received 46% of the vote, commonwealth 49% and independence less than 5%. But those numbers don’t begin to reflect the surge in nationalist pride stirred by a monthlong labor strike sparked by Rossello’s plan to privatize the government-run telephone company.

The union and the phone company announced Saturday a meeting next week that could end the walkout. A two-day general strike earlier this month, called by a coalition of unions in support of 6,500 telephone company workers still off the job, virtually paralyzed the island, delaying air traffic, snarling roadways and closing most major stores and many businesses. The work stoppage was the largest ever staged here.


“The nation’s patrimony is not for sale!” cried strikers who blocked streets in front of telephone company offices and waved Puerto Rican flags in opposition to the plan to sell the company for $1.8 billion to a consortium led by GTE Corp.

The nationalist sentiment touched off by the strike has been accompanied by a rash of bombings and acts of terrorism police attribute to the Boricua Popular Army, also known as Los Macheteros, a small clandestine pro-independence group with a violent past. Referring to Los Macheteros and other groups that have used the strike as a context for promoting Puerto Rican sovereignty, San Juan Police Chief Pedro Toledo said: “I believe many of these groups want a revolution.”

On a tropical island that hosts a vast array of American military might, where the manufacturing-based economy is largely dependent on firms based on the mainland, with the highest welfare rate in the nation, revolution seems as likely as frost.

Still, as activist lawyer Rosa Meneses, the granddaughter of Puerto Rican nationalist martyr Pedro Albizu Campos, observed: “All of this, this traumatic huelga [strike], the anniversary of the U.S. invasion, can serve to change the inertia, wake up people.


“Puerto Ricans are not a violent people. But political development and self-determination is a process. And when people understand how much power they have in their hands, and exercise it, then change will come.”

Both Rossello and his pro-statehood New Progressive Party and the Independence Party led by Berrios held rallies Saturday on the spot where U.S. troops came ashore to claim the island as booty in the Spanish-American War.

The Disgrace of Learned Dependence

Among those who spoke in support of independence was Lolita Lebron, who became an icon of Puerto Rican nationalism in 1954 when she and three compatriots pulled out pistols in the gallery of the U.S. House and fired off a volley of shots while yelling, “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!”


Five congressmen were wounded, and Lebron and her accomplices spent 25 years in a U.S. federal prison before being pardoned in 1979.

“Every day that the U.S. refuses to grant us our freedom violates the dignity of the Puerto Rican people,” she said in an interview at her home. “We are like a child who has been taught to be dependent. And that is a disgrace.”

Now 78, Lolita, known everywhere here by her first name, is so respected among Puerto Ricans that she is applauded when spotted.

Yet the 1993 plebiscite and more recent opinion polls indicate that few of her fellow Boricuas, as Puerto Ricans call themselves, support independence. “Sovereignty frightens people,” said Lebron, who worked in a New York sewing machine factory before making history. “Many Puerto Rican people are afraid of freedom. And that is a shame.”


The dichotomy between the cultural pride felt by most Boricuas and their reluctance to sever colonialist ties is just one of many contradictions on this island 1,000 miles southeast of Miami.

With some of the world’s best beaches, a tropical rain forest and an interior spiked with lush mountains, Puerto Rico has become a vacation mecca. Tax incentives also have induced many U.S. firms to set up manufacturing plants here--chiefly pharmaceuticals, textiles and electronics--that have helped boost the standard of living to the highest in the Caribbean.

But it is also one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. The entire island would fit easily into Los Angeles County, with about 600 square miles left over.

Under commonwealth, the status granted the island in 1952, Puerto Ricans on the island pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay Social Security taxes. They are citizens, but they cannot vote for president. The 2 million Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland can vote in presidential elections.


A Subsidized, Cozy Lifestyle

And true to the contradictory nature of Puerto Rico, patriotic sentiments do not necessarily translate into votes for independence.

“It’s not practical,” said Antonio Ortiz, a 29-year-old 411 operator who was one of thousands of striking phone workers waving the single-starred flag and singing nationalist anthems on the picket line.

“The truth is that people like welfare and all the benefits that come with being American citizens. Our economy would collapse without the U.S.”


There is little agreement here about what is best for Puerto Rico’s future. Rossello claims that statehood now has more support than commonwealth, and some opinion polls back him up. But there is no clear consensus.

That ambivalence is where the independentistas see new support. “After 500 years of colonialism, it is a miracle that even 5% vote for independence,” Berrios said. “Our self-esteem is on the floor, and when that happens, it’s hard to make people feel like they can rely on themselves. But why shouldn’t we control our own destiny?”

Well before the rallies in Guanica, vandals already had pried off the commemorative plaque from the big rock originally inscribed by U.S. troops who rushed in behind a storm of cannon fire to claim the island from Spain. “About time someone around here did something,” said Nerida Velez, a fruit and flower vendor.

But after that assertion of defiance, it did not take long for Velez to reveal the same ambivalence that haunts so many in Puerto Rico about the relationship between their homeland and the U.S. “Of course, I grew up in New York, and my son is a cop in Chicago,” she said in Bronx-accented English. “So I don’t want war or anything.”


Hector Zapata doesn’t want war either. He wants resolution. A teacher who lives two blocks from the Guanica waterfront, the 59-year-old Zapata says he is content with commonwealth status but understands the growing impatience among so many.

“It’s been 100 years, and people are getting restless,” he said. “I think the theft of the plaque is a warning. There are so many people with so many ideas.

“The statehooders said they were coming here to celebrate the invasion. Not commemorate, but celebrate. The independentistas want to yell, ‘Yanqui go home!’

“I just want to see what’s going to happen.”


Times researcher Anne Virtue contributed to this report.