Puerto Rico's pro-statehood forces were caught off balance today by President Ford's announcement that he would push for statehood for his Caribbean island, while opponents of the proposal wasted no time voicing their strong disapproval.

The statehood-favoring New Progressive Party (NPP) narrowly won the local election on Nov. 2 after soft-pedalling the statehood issue and concentrating on the incumbent party's alleged economic failures.

Gov-elect Carlos Romero Barcelo had repeatedly emphasized in his campaign that statehood "is not an issue" and that a vote for the NPP was not a vote for statehood.

Late today, Romero issued a non-commital statement thanking President Ford for supporting statehood, but emphazing that any charges in the island's status would have to be decided in a plebiscite.

"Ford's action," said Romero, "flies in the face of allegations made on the island that Congress would refuse to make Puerto Rico the 51st state even if Puerto Rico voters requested it."

Party sources indicated that President Ford had not consulted with the local pro-statehood faction before issuing his statement, and that his action, besides taking them completely by surprise, was viewed as causing them acute local political embarrasement.

On the other side of the political fence, lame duck Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon and pro-independence leaders lashed out angrily at Fords' statement.

Hernandez' party, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), supports commonwealth status as a means of establishing a permanent union with the United States while maintaining a maximum of local self-government and defending theisland's Spanish speaking culture.

"President Ford's proposal," said Hernandez, who leaves office Jan. 1, "does not correspond to the will of the Puerto Rico people, who have overwhelmingly chosen commonwealth. It goes against Puerto Rican's right to free self-determination."

He accused Ford of ignoring the 1967 plebescite, in which 61 per cent of the island's voters chose commonwealth over statehood or independence.

"Puerto Rico," said Hernandez, "has not ceded its right to choose its own destiny to President Ford or anyone else."

He ended his statement by accusing Ford, whose Republican Party is identified but not formally affiliated with the NPP, of playing party politics with Puerto Rico's status.

A spokesman for the pro-independence Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) decide Ford's proposal as "a publicity stunt" and the sign of panic by the U.S. government which faces the possibility of action by the U.N. Decolonization Committee on Puerto Rico early this coming year.

The PSP labeled the proposal an attempt to shore up the local statehood factions, while deliberately ignoring factions, while deliberately ignoring the fact that the NPP sidestepped the status issue during the election campaign. The PSP also claimed a characterization of NPP victory as an expression of pro-statehood feeling was a misrepresentation.

The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), another independence group, meanwhile scored President Fordfor allegedly trying to impose statehood on the island, calling the proposal "a New Year's gift that lets us know how the U.S. government rules its supposed partners in progress."

Former Gov. Luis Munoz Marin, who founded the commonwealth in the early 1950s, issued only a short, blunt statement on President Ford's proposal.

"I am in profound disagreement with President Ford," said Munoz, who retired from Politics several years ago after effectively ruling the island's political life for more than three decades.

Another former governor - also a commonwealth supporter - called Ford's proposal "very strange - since he only has 21 days left in the White House."

Former Gov. Roberto Sanchez Vilella said that if Congress did pass such a bill, which he did not expect, he would oppose it completely.

Early today, before Ford made his statement, Gov-elect Romero told the Associated Press in an interview that the main task of his administration would be to advise Puerto Rican voters on the advantages of statehood.

"We will talk. We will educate. We will try to convince people this [statehood] is best for them," Romero said.

He said he favors statehood as the best solution to puerto Rico's "status dilemma," but added, "I have a commitment not to be pushing for statehood until we are well on the way to economic recovery."

Puerto Rico suffers from over 20 per cent unemployment, declining local and foreign investments and a low economic growth rate.

With commonwealth status Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States but do not have voting representatives in Congress and cannot cast ballots in the presidential elections. They do not pay federal taxes, but receive federal aid.

Romero said he thought statehood "would speed up the process of distribution of wealth that is so necessary in Puerto Rico."

"Immediately, all people over the age of 72 would get Social Security [which they don't receive now]. Poor children would receive immediate benefits of over $100 million in education funds. The poor needy would receive over $100 million in Medicaid."

Romero added that Puerto Rico would be able to participate in revenue sharing, a federal program in which money is returned to the states for various projects.

Puerto Ricans would have to pay federal income taxes, but Romero said "75 per cent would not be paying federal income tax, they would be receiving compensatory pay from the Treasury because their incomes are so low."

The Socialist party has pushed in the United Nations to have the decolonization committee declare Puerto Rico a U.S. colony. Romero said if the United Nations wer to call for a plebiscite between independence and statehood, "I'm in a very comfortable position. I have no doubt who would win.