Striking union workers paralyzed Puerto Rico today, shutting down most businesses, slowing tourist trade to a crawl and enlisting thousands of islanders to protest a government decision to sell the publicly owned telephone company.

The telephone company dispute has clearly touched a nationalist nerve among Puerto Rico's 3.8 million inhabitants. As a result, it could set back Gov. Pedro J. Rossello's efforts with Congress to promote a change in the island's status from U.S. commonwealth to the 51st state in the Union.

More than 50 unions representing about 300,000 public sector workers called what they billed as a 48-hour general strike in support of telephone workers demanding that Rossello reconsider his decision to sell the Puerto Rico Telephone Company to GTE Corp. for $1.75 billion.

"It is part of the national patrimony," said San Juan storekeeper Primo Kjrpalani. "Today the phone company, tomorrow the water, then the electricity. Pretty soon there's nothing left."

Pickets impeded traffic on major thoroughfares and blocked entry to shopping centers and office buildings throughout the island. Thousands of union members and sympathizers held processions and demonstrations. The strike forced cancellation of two cruise ship visits to San Juan and protesters halted traffic in and out of Luis Munoz Marin International Airport for hours. Rossello refused to address the effectiveness of the strike, saying at a news conference only that "our role is to make sure basic services are not interrupted, and that has been accomplished." But the governor left little doubt that the strikers' principal demands -- to get him to halt the telephone company sale or hold a referendum on it -- will not be met.

"This is representative government," he told reporters. "You don't do things based on who makes the biggest demands or shouts the loudest."

The government bought the telephone company in 1974 and has operated it at a profit ever since. Among the ill-run public ventures on the island, the telephone company has always been a ray of light.

About 6,400 union workers struck the company shortly after Rossello announced the GTE deal. Opposition to the sale also grew dramatically outside the company, along with resentment toward Rossello. He was seen by some opponents to be pushing the sale to impress congressional Republicans with his privatization efforts and thus win support for a Senate bill that could move Puerto Rico on the road to statehood.

"He's trying to impose the {Senate} bill," said Puerto Rico legislative Rep. Anibal Acevedo Vila, president of the pro-commonwealth party. "But he's touched a nationalistic nerve. The whole idea with this strike is we're a nation, we're a people and Puerto Rico is not for sale.' "

Rossello said he does not think the strike will hurt chances of passing the Senate bill and added that he is confident Puerto Ricans will have a chance to vote by the end of the year in a plebiscite on the island's status -- whether the island should become a state or an independent nation or remain a commonwealth with local autonomy under the U.S. flag.

But he conceded that the strike could cost him support for statehood. Still, he promised to push ahead. "Decisions cannot be taken on the basis of an electoral formula," he said.

In the old city of San Juan, normally abustle with tourist jitneys and taxis, only a sprinkling of automobiles moved. A handful of shops were open, but none was doing any business: "We haven't earned a penny today," grumbled Kef Coley, co-owner of Tanca's Souvenirs in downtown San Juan.

Police were criticized earlier this month for roughing up strikers, but there was little confrontation between demonstrators and some 14,000 officers deployed to maintain order. There were no further incidents of the sporadic bombings or sabotage that have hit the island during the last three weeks.

The telephone workers, backed by the 53-union Umbrella Committee of Labor, Civic, Religious and Cultural Organizations, decided to call the strike in hopes that growing public enthusiasm would enable them to close down the entire island.

"After 20 days on strike we could see that the public outrage was growing faster and faster, so we did it," said Jose Juan Hernandez, president of the Independent Union of Electrical Workers. "It's been a complete success."

Reports from across the island confirmed commerce was almost completely shut down. Large crowds of protesters, many of them nonunion Puerto Ricans opposed to the telephone company sale, paraded raucously along main avenues.

Outside telephone company headquarters in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, students and other activists marched to the beat of salsa drums carrying placards reading "Rossello, Judas Iscariot" and "It's a mission from God -- get rid of this evil." Puerto Rico Governance U.S. acquisition: * Ceded to U.S. after Spanish-American War; Puerto Ricans made U.S. citizens in 1917. * Established as a commonwealth in 1952. Political status: * Its 3,809,000 residents are U.S. citizens, but don't vote for president and are represented in Congress by a nonvoting delegate. * Residents are eligible for some federal benefits, but don't pay federal taxes. Votes on status: * In March, House passed bill to allow island to vote on becoming 51st state. Bill awaits Senate vote. * In 1993, Puerto Rico held nonbinding referendum on status. Slim majority voted for status quo. CAPTION: Strikers protesting the sale of the public phone company to GTE clash with police in San Juan. The strike shut down businesses throughout the island.