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Puerto Ricans Head Into Close Vote On Island's Future Political Status

Opponents of statehood say loss of financial benefits could cost jobs

AS Puerto Rico's 3.6 million residents prepare for Sunday's historic plebiscite on the island's status, voters favoring statehood appear to be locked in a virtual dead-heat with those wanting to remain a commonwealth of the United States.

A poll released this week by Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, shows commonwealth status with 38 percent, statehood with 35 percent, and independence with 6 percent.

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Yesterday, the island's two main political parties held massive rallies to bolster their causes. Up to 150,000 people were expected at a pro-statehood New Progressive Party rally led by Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello in suburban Bayamon. A similar number were expected to attend a pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party demonstration in Old San Juan.

``It's going to be very close,'' predicts Joaquin Villamil, president of Estudios Tecnicos, an economic consulting firm. But Mr. Villamil says he doesn't expect any sudden changes even if statehood gets a majority: ``Nobody expects statehood to win 70 or 75 percent of the vote, which is probably what we would need to push statehood through in a relatively short period of time.''

The vote comes amid preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Caribbean island's discovery by Christopher Columbus. For many here, the anniversary is just one more reminder of Puerto Rico's colonial status.

``In 500 years, we've only had two opportunities to decide our status,'' Governor Rossello told his supporters. ``The first was in 1967. The second is Nov. 14. Don't send the wrong message.''

Rossello, who vowed during his 1992 campaign to hold a status plebiscite, says statehood is the only sensible option. ``For the past 41 years under commonwealth, we've been talking about parity with the 50 states, but we haven't gotten there yet,'' he says. ``This commonwealth doesn't provide any opportunities. Ask the young people who have had to leave the island in search of jobs.... ''

The ``Estadistas'' or pro-statehooders claim that only statehood can guarantee continued US citizenship and the vote in presidential elections for Puerto Ricans. Commonwealth supporters say that's ridiculous.

``The issue on Sunday is not US citizenship, which is not in danger, but something that is: the Puerto Rican economy,'' says Alex Maldonado Jr., a pro-commonwealth editorial writer.

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Puerto Ricans get substantial financial benefits from commonwealth status. An estimated 70 percent of island residents receive welfare payments. And section 936 of the US tax code exempts US companies from paying federal income tax on profits earned by Puerto Rican subsidiaries. More than 2,000 manufacturing plants have sprung up here since the program's inception in the late 1940s.

Under statehood that tax credit would disappear, and commonwealth supporters, known as ``populares,'' say that could mean the loss of 300,000 jobs. If the credit disappears and the North American Free Trade Agreement passes, they argue, Puerto Rico would be even less attractive as a manufacturing site.

But pro-statehooders argue that the financial - and political - benefits that comes with being a US state would more than make up for the loss.

``The notion that liberty and prosperity are incompatible has been forced down people's throats here for 100 years,'' says Sen. Ruben Barrios, leader of th Puerto Rican Independence Party. He believes the island can enjoy both as a state.

Besides political rights and economic security, cultural differences are a major issue in the plebiscite. Many Puerto Ricans fear statehood would spell the end of the island's culture and the use of the Spanish language. Some even protest that statehood would prevent the island from sending its own team to the Olympics.

Puerto Rico isn't the only Caribbean possession trying to resolve its political identity. Several months ago, the US Virgin Islands voted overwhelmingly to remain an unincorporated territory of the US. And on Nov. 19, voters in Dutch-speaking Curacao will go to the polls to decide their relationship with the Netherlands.

But Mr. Villamil argues that the islands' status is becoming less and less important in the global village.

``Whether Puerto Rico is a state, remains a commonwealth or becomes independent, the things we have to do in the next five or 10 years [to stay competitive] remain the same,'' he says.

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