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Puerto Rico's Status

IT was an invigorating exercise in democracy but, when the last vote was counted the night of Nov. 14, Puerto Ricans found they would, for the time being, remain members of a commonwealth within the United States and not of a soon-to-be 51st state or a fragile new Caribbean nation.

Gov. Pedro Rossello, a pediatric surgeon and jogging enthusiast who ran hard on a statehood platform to win the governorship last January, has seen his dream of statehood slip away for now.

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Those who voted in favor of remaining a US commonwealth made up 48.4 percent of the vote. But the pro-statehood forces can look at the results and see 42.6 percent on the board - and they see themselves with momentum. The success of Governor Rossello and other New Progressive Party members in last January's election - including those seeking statehood - was a strong factor in the referendum.

Independence was backed by only 4.4 percent, clear evidence that Puerto Ricans harbor little belief that their commonwealth has the resources to prosper as a small, totally independent nation.

Often cited as a factor in reluctance to give up commonwealth status are tax breaks granted by the United States to industries that manufacture their products - pharmaceuticals, electronic components, clothing, and other goods manufactured in Puerto Rico by Puerto Ricans. If the commonwealth became a state, Washington would likely have to discontinue such favored tax status.

Some commonwealth proponents also argued that statehood would force Puerto Ricans to shift from Spanish to English as the official language of government and business.

Yet commonwealth status also carries inconsistencies. For example, the commonwealth's men are subject to the US military draft (many have served with distinction), and yet Puerto Ricans cannot vote in federal elections.

That the new governor concentrated so much of his administration's effort on the statehood issue no doubt makes it difficult to get back to leading a commonwealth rather than a new US state. But Rossello seems up to the challenge.

There will be no official changes as a result of this referendum. But the balance of political power in Puerto Rico has shifted. Although Rossello has lost his initial foray in search of statehood, the closeness of the vote is likely to encourage future attempts.

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