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Emotions run high in Puerto Rico debate

Times Staff Writer

Puerto Rico’s rival advocates of statehood, independence and the colonial status quo vented decades of frustration and anger in a congressional hearing Wednesday, but made little progress toward convincing legislators to back one of their competing plans for the island’s future.

The contentious issue of the island’s status in relation to the United States has consumed Puerto Rico since it was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1898.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but can’t vote for members of Congress or the president. They pay no federal income tax but pay about a third of their income to island tax collectors.

A White House task force recommendation in December 2005 that the 8-million-strong Puerto Rican population and diaspora vote on their status has riled political leaders and divided lawmakers being asked to decide between two roadmaps.

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One bill submitted to Congress by Puerto Rican-born Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) calls for a two-stage referendum, the first to be held by the end of 2009, as suggested by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.

The first ballot would ask voters whether they wanted to change the status quo of U.S. territory in a commonwealth with the mainland. If a majority voted yes, a second ballot would ask them to decide between becoming the 51st U.S. state or an independent country.

The status issue so dominates Puerto Rico politics that the three main political parties have nothing else on their agendas.

All three leaders addressed the House subcommittee on insular affairs in impassioned repetitions of long-held positions. The head of the pro-statehood party, former Gov. Pedro Rossello, stormed out of the hearing when asked to wrap up his statement, which had already run almost twice the allowed five minutes.

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Serrano said he would support any option that ended the colonial status of Puerto Rico.

“If you vote for change, the only legal, sensible and moral question is do you want to integrate into the union or separate from the union,” Serrano told the hearing room packed with supporters and politicians.

But Puerto Rico’s current governor and head of the Popular Democratic Party, Anibal Acevedo Vila, has for years been championing the idea of an “enhanced commonwealth” that would allow Puerto Ricans to retain their U.S. citizenship while being free to set their own foreign and trade policies and opt out of certain federal laws as negotiated with Congress.

A bill submitted by Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, another New York Democrat of Puerto Rican roots, calls for a constitutional convention on the island at which delegates would define the relationship they want with the United States.

That option to redefine a commonwealth, however, has been judged unconstitutional by Justice Department officials since President George H.W. Bush was in office.

The current White House representative on the issue told the hearing that Congress’ agreements cannot be made binding and irrevocable for future legislatures. The Constitution foresees only statehood or separation as a permanent resolution of territorial status.

Velazquez, in a voice quivering with rage, demanded to know from the White House task force chairman, C. Kevin Marshall of the Justice Department, how his 12-member panel could have formed a plan for Puerto Rico’s future when the task force included no Puerto Ricans and held no public hearings during cursory visits to the island.

Marshall replied that the panel was charged with preparing an internal executive advisory to President Bush on the best process for determining what Puerto Ricans want, not pushing for any particular option, and that he considered the report, more than five years in the making, to be fair.

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Puerto Ricans have held four plebiscites on their status since 1967, though none were authorized or recognized by Congress, which the Constitution charges with overseeing territories.

A slight majority of islanders has supported the status quo, with most of the rest wanting statehood.

During the last plebiscite, in 1998, voters were confused by the options and 50.3% chose “none of the above,” a protest option inserted by commonwealth advocates when their preferred ballot language was rejected. Statehood won 46.5% support and independence less than 3%.

Acevedo Vila cast the formula proposed by the task force and in Serrano’s bill as the two less popular options being lumped together to defeat the people’s first choice, a revised status quo of a territory with enhanced independence.

“That’s not just undemocratic, it’s un-American,” the governor told the panel.

Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative to the House, Luis Fortuno of the pro-statehood party, reminded the governor that his wished-for enhanced commonwealth is not on offer.

“Three administrations have told you what you are proposing is unconstitutional. What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” he asked.

The head of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration here, Eduardo Bhatia, said the hearing did little to encourage him that a resolution was near.

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“The problem is that Puerto Rico is not on anybody’s radar,” he said, noting that all voting members of the subcommittee left the hearing hours before the spirited testimony concluded.

carol.williams@latimes.com


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