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World - Americas

Puerto Ricans say 'no' to statehood

But governor won't give up

In this story:

December 14, 1998
Web posted at: 6:49 p.m. EST (2349 GMT)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (CNN) -- Puerto Rico will not become the 51st state of the United States anytime soon.

On Sunday, a majority of Puerto Rican voters rejected the statehood idea for the second time in a decade.

With 100 percent of votes counted, Puerto Rico's state election commission said 784,842, or 50.2 percent, voted for "none of the above," at the ballot box, the option favored by supporters of Puerto Rico remaining a U.S. commonwealth.

Another 726,766, or 46.5 percent, of voters in the Spanish-speaking territory backed a measure to seek statehood status through the U.S. Congress.

The vote, on this Caribbean island of 3.8 million people, was a defeat for Gov. Pedro Rossello, and followed an intense campaign estimated to have cost more than $2 million, although officials of Rossello's New Progressive Party (NPP) have declined to comment on that figure.

The opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP), which championed the "none of the above" vote after suing unsuccessfully to block the plebiscite, called Sunday's election a victory for the Puerto Rican people.

Victory dance for opposition

The PDP contended that the plebiscite ballot was unfairly worded to favor statehood.

"Here is a people proud of its history. Here is a people proud of its relationship with the United States. Here is a people proud of its citizenship, and also proud of its Puerto Rican-ness," Anibal Acevedo Vila, president of the PDP, told a crowd of dancing, cheering supporters during a victory speech.

Under commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and receive many federal benefits. But they do not pay federal income taxes or vote in national elections.

On Sunday, voters chose whether the U.S. territory should: push the U.S. Congress for statehood; remain a U.S. commonwealth; begin a new "free association," a sort of quasi- independence with more power for the local government and close ties to the United States; or seek independence.

The plebiscite was Puerto Rico's third in less than 30 years, all losses for statehood. In 1993, shortly after starting his first term as governor, Rossello backed a status plebiscite in which commonwealth defeated statehood by 48 to 46 percent, with most of the rest of votes for independence.

Statehood also was defeated in a 1967 plebiscite on Puerto Rico's status, a defeat that split the existing pro-statehood party and led to the birth of the NPP.

Analysts said prospects for Puerto Rican statehood looked hazier than ever after Sunday's vote.

Despite results, governor claims victory, too

"Today, the people spoke and said that they want a change," Rossello said. "... The people spoke and statehood won."

Instead of conceding defeat, he claimed victory for the statehood movement. He said the "none of the above" votes were protest ballots -- many of them personal attacks on himself and his administration's policies -- that should not be counted in the total results, leaving statehood with an overwhelming majority.

"I recognize that almost half of those who voted, voted against... (but many of them) mounted a protest against me personally or in protest of my administration," he told cheering supports at the NPP headquarters.

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He promised to take the results of Sunday's vote to Congress and press for a program for a transition to statehood for Puerto Rico. That plan, if passed in Washington, would then face a vote on the island.

Experts have said anything but a strong vote for statehood will make it difficult to persuade a balky U.S. Congress to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state. It is estimated that no more than 30 percent of Puerto Ricans speak English well and the island's per capita income is about $8,100, less than one-third the U.S. average of about $26,000 per year.

Rossello had pushed hard to hold the plebiscite in 1998, 100 years after Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession at the end of the Spanish-American War, angering Puerto Ricans hit hard in September by Hurricane Georges, which caused more than $1 billion in damages here.

Voters also had expressed anger with Rossello over the pending sale of the state-owned Puerto Rico Telephone Co., a deal that had prompted an angry islandwide strike in June.

"I think this is absolutely stupid from this guy," Maria, a voter who declined to give her name, said of Rossello. "He believes he is the owner of this island."

With 100 percent of the vote counted, the commonwealth option on the ballot had 974 votes, or 0.1 percent, free association had 4,472, or 0.3 percent.

Independence was chosen by 39,625 voters, or 2.5 percent.

Election officials said 71.1 percent of Puerto Rico's 2.2 million registered voters participated in Sunday's vote, which was carried out peacefully and without incident. In the 1993 plebiscite, 73 percent of voters cast ballots, a spokesman for the election commission said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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