SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Two years ago, when Puerto Rican officials launched their effort for a congressionally mandated referendum that could lead to statehood, nobody seemed more eager to rally to their cause than officials in the District of Columbia.
They saw the Caribbean island as a natural ally that could help to push their long-stalled proposal for District statehood through Congress. The District and Puerto Rico proposals seemed similar, D.C. officials said. Each jurisdiction has a large minority population and has tried for decades to define its relationship with the federal government.
"It would be a further insult to us for either house to move a bill on Puerto Rico while ignoring" the District, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) said earlier this year.
But here in Puerto Rico, few politicians are eager to see the two issues joined. Indeed, a spokesman for Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, an opponent of Puerto Rican statehood who initiated the referendum proposal in 1989, produces a two-page statement that ticks off seven reasons why the District and Puerto Rico should be judged separately.
Statehood may be fine for the District, the statement says, but the District and Puerto Rico are vastly different. Unlike D.C. residents, Puerto Ricans are deeply divided over statehood, have a history of "violent secessionists," do not pay federal income taxes and would face economic uncertainty as a state, the statement says.
"Whereas nationality is not an issue in D.C., Puerto Ricans are a distinct people with a long Latin American and Caribbean heritage," the statement says. Puerto Ricans have been debating their island's status since the days of Spanish rule, says the statement, which goes on to note that, unlike the District, Puerto Rico has its own national anthem, Olympic team and a large population that speaks only Spanish.
Statehood and independence supporters here also say they believe the D.C. proposal should be judged separately. They argue that the District's unique status as the nation's capital is established by the Constitution, making the city's claim for statehood a "constitutional issue."
Puerto Rico's claim for the right to an election on its future is based on more recent federal pronouncements, such as post-World War II assurances to the United Nations that the United States would not treat the island as a colonial possession.
The emergence of Jesse L. Jackson as the District's leading statehood advocate is not likely to win support for linking the two issues next year, when a statehood referendum for Puerto Rico will once again be debated in Congress, said aides to Hernandez Colon.
They said there is bad blood between Jackson and the governor growing out of Jackson's insistence that he draft the language on Puerto Rico in the Democratic Party's 1988 presidential platform.
Jackson insisted on stating that the Democratic Party believed in "empowering the commonwealth of Puerto Rico with greater autonomy."
The phrase seemed innocuous at the time, but Hernandez Colon's opponents seized on it in the island's 1988 gubernatorial race with an ad campaign painting him as a secret supporter of independence.
Members of the governor's staff have called the ads "the big lie," but they say polls show that the ads cut sharply into Hernandez Colon's early lead and nearly cost him the election.
Hernandez Colon said he was so troubled by his poor showing that he raised the issue of a referendum in early 1989, hoping Congress would approve it to resolve the island's political future.