There is general agreement here that, as a result of President Ford's statehood proposal. Puerto Rico's present commonwealth relationship with the United States will not survive.
Leaders of the island's three political movements - from pro-statehood Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo to ex-Gov. Rafael Hernandez-Colon, leader of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, to Roberto Aponte Toro, an independentista candidate for mayor of San Juan in the last election can agree on very little.
But they agree that Ford has hastened the day when this highly politicized island will once again be forced to radically redefine its 78-year-old relationship with the United States.
The Ford statement has clearly strenghtened Romero and his prostatehood New Progressive Party, which won the November election, by removing the argument that the United States would never grant statehood to this poor and culturally different island.
At the same time, the independence movement here feels it has also been strengthened because some Puerto Ricans who could accept the semi-automomous, semi-colonial status quo - but who view statehood as the death of their Spanish culture will be forced to make up their minds finally in favor of an independent Puerto Rico.
By slamming the door on greater autonomy within the present commonwealth framework, Ford has weakened that position and the party that has traditionally supported the present relationship, the Popular Democrats of Hernandez-Colon.
Yet it is their belief that if commonwealth is redefined in a much more autonomist fashion, including veto power by the Puerto Rican legislature over federal laws that now apply to the commonwealth automatically, that position might yet win a plurality in a plebiscite.
President ford expressed the view, also held by many powerful members of Congress, that what the Popular Democrats were seeking gave Puerto Rico more rights than a state without any of the responsibilities, such as paying federal taxes.
By raising the status issue at this time - an issue that had been submerged due to serious economic problems on the island - Ford has renewed the prolonged debate over Puerto Rico's political future and, coupled with the Popular Democrats' loss in November, has left the island without anyone in power who supports the status quo.
It is for this reason that many people here believe a showdown over Puerto Rico's status vis-a-vis the United States will come in the near future, possibly before 1980.
"There have been some rapid status developments this past week, so rapid that it will take time to absorb them," The San Juan Star editorialized last week. "One thing is certain. The old debate has taken on some entirely new dimensionse again."
Many responsible people here, including Arturo Morales Carrion, president of the University of Puerto Rico, believe that the debate will be accompanied by waves of terrorism and violence, both on the island and in the mainland United States, as a decision gets closer.
Morales said he believes that the island's independence movement is small but militant.
Bombs set to explode were found in the ROTC building at the university's Rio Piedras campus Jan. 3 shortly before classes began. "It was a very professional job. The bombs were set to blow up when there were to be people there," Morales said. "We know we are going to have a very difficult year."
Despite Ford's support for statehood, thought to be the first time an d inclusion of Puerto Rico in the union, there is no way of knowing how the majority of the island's 3.1 million people will vote if a plebiscite is held in the near future.
So far, President-elect Jimmy Carter and Democrats in Congress have shown no great interest in disturbing the present U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico. The traditional view in both Washington and San Juan has been that Puerto Rico's present status is mutually beneficial: commonwealth allows the island to receive almost $3 billion a year in federal aid as well as the ability to attract U.S. corporations, which do not have to pay federal taxes if they locate here but create jobs on an island that still has an estimated 30 per cent of its work force unemployed.
In return, the United States maintains vast military installations on Puerto Rico and has a democratic, friendly American outpost in the Caribbean. On a different plane, the United States has felt an historic and moral commitment to help and protect the island, reaffirmed by every recent President.
But even if Congress and the new administration could ignore the rising sentiments in Puerto Rico for a redefinition of the relationship, they may find it impossible to ignore a proposed resolution by the United Nations that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony not a freely associated state as the U.S. government has maintained and as most Americans believe.
Cuba has been trying to get just such a resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly since 1971, and President Ford's statement week before last may have had the unintended effect of helping the Cubans when the resolution is debated again next fall.
The Popular Democrats, in power between 1973 and Jan. 2 have until now taken the position at the United Nations that Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States is the result of free and democratic votes of the people. The last status referendum on the island in 1967 gave commonwealth more than 60 per cent of the vote over statehood (39 per cent) and independence (less than 1 per cent).
But, in an interview last week, Hernandez-Colon said it would be "very, very difficult," in view of Ford's refusal to grant the island a greater measure of autonomy, for him to take the position that Puerto Rico is not, indeed, a colony of the United States.
The two pro-independence parties, both of which favor the nationalization of U.S. interests here and the establishment of a socialist republic, have traditionally been the primary local backers of the Cuban resolution.
Now a new, pro-statehood Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, which is seeking to replace the Popular Democract as the recognized affiliate of the U.S. Democratic Party, says it too will testify at the United Nations this fall that Puerto Rico is a colony.
The new party, headed by Franklin Delano Lopez and Juan Manuel Passalacqua, both early supporters of Jimmy Carter while Hernandez Colon and the Popular Democrats were supporting Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), hopes to force a confrontation over the island's status, believing that the people will vote for statehood in a referendum if commonwealth is totally discredited by the UN.
Ironically, only Romero's New Progressive Party is reluctant to support the Cuban resolution, not wanting to embarrass the United States at a time when statehood appears a possibility.
There is a widespread belief here that the Cuban resolution may get through the General Assembly this time and, if so, it will further propel Puerto Rico and the United States toward establishing a new relationship.
How the status issue will be resolved is anybody's guess. Politics, especially the politics of status, is the national pastime in Puerto rico.
Romero eloquently argues that the commonwealth relationship is "incomprehensible. I want to exercise my full rights of citizenship." Statehood is the only answer, he says.
Aponte argues that only independence can preserve Puerto Rico's Spanish heritage and language. "Statehood is cultural death," he says. If it comes, comes, "this island could very easily become the Northern Island of the United States."
Hernandez-Colon and Marcos Rigau, a leading theoretician of the Popular Democratic Party, argue that commonwealth, with more autonomy, is the only acceptable compromise between the two extremes. "It's greater self-government. But it is not separation for independence or a change in loyalties," the former governor said.
The only thing that can be said with any certainty about the political future of Puerto Rico is that the decision came a little closer last week.
The President's statement, said Rigau, "has had the positive effect of awakening a lot of people who have been sleeping in Puerto Rico."