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After Plebiscite Vote, Puerto Ricans Bask in Benefits of Commonwealth

FOLLOWING the defeat of a statehood initiative, Puerto Rican leaders plan to travel to Washington to ask for more of the federal benefits that go along with commonwealth status.

At the top of Puerto Rico's priority list is preserving special tax breaks that would have been lost if the Caribbean island had become the 51st state.

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Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code exempts US companies from paying federal taxes on profits earned by their manufacturing subsidiaries in Puerto Rico. Some 2,000 pharmaceutical, electronic, and apparel factories take advantage of the tax credit and provide about 300,000 direct and indirect manufacturing jobs here.

Pro-commonwealth politicians plan to ask Congress to make Section 936 permanent. They also want to extend the Supplemental Security Insurance program to Puerto Rico and remove limits on federal food assistance programs.

More generally, says Miguel Hernandez Agosto, outgoing president of the Popular Democratic Party, which spearheaded the commonwealth campaign: ``We expect President Clinton to issue some kind of order that Puerto Rico is not a territory and has a unique relationship with the United States.''

The defeat of the statehood referendum - after an emotional campaign that touched on issues ranging from guarantees of US citizenship to future participation in the Olympic Games - came as a sweet surprise to commonwealth supporters.

Out of some 1.7 million ballots cast, commonwealth status received 48.4 percent, statehood 46.2 percent, and independence 4.4 percent. The remaining 1 percent of ballots were left blank as a protest against the plebiscite itself. Some 73 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the plebiscite.

Pro-commonwealth supporters were still celebrating wildly late into the night on Sunday at the San Juan headquarters of the Popular Democratic Party, where Mr. Hernandez Agosto thanked the party's rank-and-file for derailing statehood.

``It was David against Goliath and dignity against money, and we won,'' he said. ``The message voters are giving us is that, as an instrument of progress, commonwealth must be preserved.''

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Pro-statehood forces, led by Gov. Pedro Rossello, were caught off guard by the defeat. Earlier in the year, they were talking not about winning, but about how big of a majority they would need to persuade Congress to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

``The people spoke out on status today and I heed the results,'' Governor Rossello said shortly after polls closed. ``It was my commitment to hold this plebiscite. Since it was my commitment, I assume full responsibility for its results.''

STILL, the vote was a stunning repudiation for Rossello and his New Progressive Party.

In the weeks leading up to the plebiscite, the pro-statehood campaign aired television commercials in which former Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush urged Puerto Ricans to support statehood.

Yet voters chose to stick with ``Estado Libre Asociado,'' as commonwealth is known here. Many feared that voting for statehood would mean the end of Puerto Rican culture and Spanish as the island's official language. Pro-commonwealth voters were also keenly aware that, under statehood, Puerto Rico would lose special economic benefits.

Ruben Berrios, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, took credit for the fact that neither statehood nor commonwealth won a majority - even though independence garnered only 75,253 votes.

``We have put a brake on the statehood movement,'' Mr. Berrios told supporters. ``From now on, statehood is `en marchaatras on a backwards path.''

But statehood actually picked up support since the last plebiscite, held in 1967, when only 38 percent of Puerto Ricans favored joining the Union. Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth since 1952 and a US possession since 1898.

Puerto Ricans are unlikely to vote again on statehood until well into the next century.

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