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Puerto Rico Sought Statehood in ’99

December 10, 1998

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Puerto Rico’s statehood movement got its start when the island’s residents welcomed U.S. troops 100 years ago.

Soon after the Americans expelled the Spanish, many people here asked to join the union. But the statehood idea was pushed aside after the commonwealth arrangement was installed in 1952, making Puerto Rico, whose people had already been U.S. citizens for 35 years, something between a U.S. state and a sovereign nation.

Now many Puerto Ricans and a growing number of representatives in the U.S. Congress, which has ultimate authority over the island, feel it is time to decide.

``The referendum will address one of the most important issues in our society,″ said Carlos Vivoni, Puerto Rico’s secretary for economic development. He said the island was ``hopefully on its way to becoming the 51st U.S. state.″

Luis Munoz Marin, the first Puerto Rican governor and the father of the commonwealth, argued that statehood would bring economic ruin through federal taxes and a loss of tax-exempt privileges to attract investment. ``Under statehood, Puerto Ricans will die of hunger,″ he said.

The push for statehood began making a comeback about 30 years ago, when prominent island leaders began questioning whether commonwealth status was the best idea.

In a first vote, in 1967, the commonwealth status received 60 percent and statehood got 39 percent of the vote. Statehood’s share rose to 46 percent in a nonbinding 1993 referendum.

Statehood may win its first victory in a referendum Sunday, according to polls. But the five options on the ballot make an outright majority unlikely.

The founding father of Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations, Jose Celso Barbosa, formed the Republican Party here in 1899, the year after the U.S. takeover. He espoused what many still argue was a flawed view of the federation.

Barbosa believed the United States gave states much more power than the U.S. Constitution seemingly allows. He promised that Puerto Rico could become ``an autonomous state″ within the union, a stand that won him the support of independence-minded islanders.

In 1952, Congress gave the island its current ambiguous status as a Free Associated State, or commonwealth, with tax-exempt privileges.

Statehood has been pursued with a vengeance by the island leadership since the 1992 election of Pedro Rossello, a pediatrician known mostly for being a tennis champion as a teen-ager.

Rossello has insisted that statehood would not require Puerto Ricans to abandon Spanish. And he says it will grant Puerto Ricans the full democracy they deserve, including votes for the president and representatives in Congress.

He also argues that statehood would be an economic boon, as it was for Alaska and Hawaii.

``Under commonwealth, investors compare the opportunity of Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic or Chile,″ says a pro-statehood brochure. ``Under statehood, Puerto Rico would be compared to Connecticut, Montana, New Mexico. ... Which sounds better?″

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