Call For Puerto Rico Statehood

To screams of approval at a rally Saturday marking 100 years since U.S. troops invaded, Governor Pedro Rossello announced a local referendum on Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state of the United States.

The governor's announcement of a December vote comes as a bill for a plebiscite approved by the U.S. House of Representatives has stalled due to opposition in the U.S. Senate.

Even before Rossello's announcement, his opponents predicted failure of such a referendum on an island where polls over the past five years have shown Puerto Ricans evenly divided with about 40 percent supporting statehood and the same percentage for the current commonwealth status.

"If he holds a creole (local) plebiscite, he will lose it," independence supporters were told at a nearby rally held by Lolita Lebron, the unrepentant militant who led a 1954 armed attack on the U.S. House of Representatives that wounded five lawmakers.

Fernando Martin, vice president of the Puerto Rico Independence Party, told reporters that the Senate's stalling showed "tremendous opposition to statehood in the United States."

Legislators have questioned the wisdom of making a state of the mainly Spanish-speaking island. Two-thirds of Puerto Rico's residents get some form of federal welfare, yet they pay no federal taxes.

"Estados Unidos!" statehooders jeered at "independentistas," or supporters of independence, earlier Saturday as they went their separate ways to the rallies at Guanica, the southwestern town where 100 years ago the U.S. battleship Gloucester launched an embarrassingly swift end to 400 years of Spanish colonial rule.

"The Fatherland or Death!" declared a poster carried by one supporter of independence, who was among the less than five percent of islanders who, polls show, support independence.

In a non-binding referendum in 1993, similar to what Rossello proposes this year, the current commonwealth status edged out statehood by two percentage points.

The statehood camp wants the economic advantages and political prestige of a firmer alliance with the United States. Advocates say their current status is like being a servant who is not invited to sit at the table.

"We're here to celebrate being part of America, man. We're Hispanic-Americans and proud of it," municipal worker Roberto Garcia said in Guanica.

The Permanent Conference of (social democratic) Parties of Latin America, meanwhile, announced a campaign for the island's independence at a conference in San Juan. Gustavo Carvajal of Mexico's governing Institutional Revolutionary Party said they would lobby Americans and their Congress on "the need for a crusade" to show why independence was "the only way" to decolonize Puerto Rico.

Hundreds of police provided strong security at rallies marking the anniversary, which comes amid heightened tensions over Rossello's privatization of the state telephone company. Protesters have planted bombs, slahed telephone cables, and in pre-dawn drive-by shootings attacked a local bank that is part of a U.S. consortium buying the Puerto Rico Telephone Co.

Telephone workers have been on strike since June 18, but union leaders late Friday said they had come to an agreement with the government to go back to work. They refused to give details until they present the proposal to union members.

Written by Dan Perry.