By Lar­ry Rohter | Pub­lished: Mon­day, Novem­ber 15, 1993

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Rebuff­ing their Gov­er­nor and his efforts to make this Caribbean island com­mon­wealth the 51st state, Puer­to Ricans vot­ed nar­row­ly today to con­tin­ue their exist­ing ambigu­ous rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States.

By choos­ing to main­tain the com­mon­wealth sta­tus that has been in place here for more than 40 years, Puer­to Ricans made it clear that they pre­fer “the best of two worlds,” in the words of a pro-com­mon­wealth cam­paign slo­gan, to the prospect of more inti­mate ties with the Unit­ed States. By an over­whelm­ing mar­gin, they also reject­ed inde­pen­dence, the third option that had been offered to them in the non­bind­ing vote today.

With all votes count­ed, the com­mon­wealth option won 48 per­cent of the vote, com­pared with 46 per­cent for state­hood. Inde­pen­dence account­ed for about 4 per­cent of the vote, with a small num­ber of bal­lots being delib­er­ate­ly cast blank or spoiled as a protest against the plebiscite. Prob­lems of State­hood

“Com­mon­wealth is the for­mu­la that is most con­ve­nient for Puer­to Rico,” said Angel Casano­va, a 52-year-old wood­work­er, after vot­ing this morn­ing in Baya­mon, a San Juan sub­urb. “State­hood would only result in more prob­lems.”

Gov. Pedro Rossel­lo acknowl­edged the defeat in a speech at the head­quar­ters of his New Pro­gres­sive Par­ty a few hours after the vot­ing end­ed this after­noon. “The peo­ple have spo­ken, and I have to obey,” he said. He added that by turn­ing out in large num­bers and peace­ful­ly exer­cis­ing their right to vote, “in the eyes of the whole world the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico have shown their class and their com­mit­ment to democ­ra­cy.” A Major­i­ty for Nei­ther

Nev­er­the­less, the result threat­ens to ush­er in a peri­od of polit­i­cal uncer­tain­ty here and change Puer­to Rico’s rela­tions with Wash­ing­ton. Thanks to the show­ing of the Puer­to Rico Inde­pen­dence Par­ty, nei­ther of the two main par­ties here can claim to rep­re­sent a major­i­ty of the island’s 3.7 mil­lion peo­ple.

In addi­tion, Mr. Rossel­lo and Puer­to Rico’s non-vot­ing del­e­gate to Con­gress, Car­los Romero-Barce­lo, will now be expect­ed to ask Wash­ing­ton to enhance Puer­to Rico’s exist­ing com­mon­wealth sta­tus after hav­ing spent the last three months attack­ing the sta­tus quo as a “shame­ful” rem­nant of colo­nial­ism.

Tonight, lead­ers of the pro-com­mon­wealth Pop­u­lar Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty called on Mr. Rossel­lo to begin dis­cus­sions with them over how those enhance­ments should be pur­sued in Wash­ing­ton.

Since 1952, Puer­to Rico has been a com­mon­wealth of the Unit­ed States, a unique arrange­ment that gives the res­i­dents of Puer­to Rico some, but not all, of the rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties of Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship. With com­mon­wealth sta­tus, Puer­to Ricans are sub­ject to the mil­i­tary draft, but do not vote in Fed­er­al elec­tions and do not pay Fed­er­al tax­es so long as they live here.

An addi­tion­al 2.6 mil­lion Puer­to Ricans live on the Amer­i­can main­land and are treat­ed like all oth­er cit­i­zens. Mr. Rossel­lo, who cam­paigned on a state­hood plat­form when he won office a year ago, had made that one of his main argu­ments for state­hood, say­ing it was time to end Puer­to Rico’s “sec­ond class” sta­tus.

The Pop­u­lar Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, in con­trast, offered a slight­ly mod­i­fied ver­sion of com­mon­wealth. They vowed to seek restora­tion of tax ben­e­fits that Con­gress reduced ear­li­er this year to cut the Fed­er­al bud­get deficit. The par­ty also said it would fight for an increase in Fed­er­al aid to the elder­ly, the dis­abled and the poor.

Through­out the cam­paign, back­ers of com­mon­wealth sta­tus also argued that state­hood would require Puer­to Rico to relin­quish both its use of the Span­ish lan­guage and its cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. They also said that state­hood would bring with it a Fed­er­al income and increased Fed­er­al levies on gaso­line, cig­a­rettes and liquor.

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Though three for­mer Repub­li­can Pres­i­dents had urged vot­ers here to choose state­hood, Pres­i­dent Clin­ton remained neu­tral dur­ing the cam­paign, say­ing only that he would respect the will of Puer­to Rico’s peo­ple. “What­ev­er they want, I want,” Mr. Clin­ton told the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Cau­cus in Sep­tem­ber.

What vot­ers appar­ent­ly did not want was a sub­stan­tial change, said Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jose Ser­ra­no, Demo­c­rat of the Bronx, who is one of three Puer­to Ricans in Con­gress.

But Mr. Ser­ra­no, who did not take a pub­lic posi­tion on the issue, added: “I ques­tion how long we can keep this kind of rela­tion­ship. Essen­tial­ly, we have a colony in the Caribbean. We go around the world talk­ing about democ­ra­cy but we still have a colony. Even­tu­al­ly it’s going to be a prob­lem for us.” Spar­ing Con­gress

Still, the result of the vote spares Con­gress the dif­fi­cult and con­tro­ver­sial deci­sion that would have con­front­ed it had Mr. Rossel­lo’s par­ty been suc­cess­ful: whether to grant or reject state­hood for Puer­to Rico. Pri­vate­ly, many mem­bers of Con­gress say they are con­tent with the cur­rent rela­tion­ship and are reluc­tant to tin­ker with it.

At a news con­fer­ence Sat­ur­day night and in his speech tonight, Mr. Rossel­lo, a 49-year-old pedi­atric sur­geon, gave no timetable for sub­mit­ting the “enhanced com­mon­wealth” pro­gram to Con­gress for approval. But he did give one indi­ca­tion of the polit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties that may lie ahead for the island. He said that since the Pop­u­lar Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which con­trols nei­ther the com­mon­wealth gov­ern­ment nor Puer­to Rico’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Wash­ing­ton, had offered the win­ning option in the vote, “it is up to them to keep their word with the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico.”

The plebiscite on Puer­to Rico’s polit­i­cal sta­tus was the first since 1967, when com­mon­wealth won 60 per­cent of 700,000 votes cast, com­pared with 39 per­cent for state­hood. The Puer­to Rico Inde­pen­dence Par­ty had urged a boy­cott of that vote, and inde­pen­dence was favored by few­er than one per­cent of vot­ers. Heavy Turnout

The last series of pub­lic opin­ion polls tak­en before the vote today had shown state­hood and com­mon­wealth in a vir­tu­al tie, with each sup­port­ed by about 40 per­cent of vot­ers sur­veyed. Lead­ers of both par­ties were pre­dict­ing that vic­to­ry would go to whichev­er side did the best job in bring­ing its sup­port­ers to the polls.

Turnout for the vote today was high­er than in the 1967 plebiscite, when just under two-thirds of reg­is­tered vot­ers cast bal­lots. Mem­bers of the State Elec­toral Com­mis­sion esti­mat­ed that more than 73 per­cent of Puer­to Rico’s 2.2 mil­lion vot­ers vot­ed today, a sign of the pas­sions aroused by the issue.

Despite rain that began at mid-morn­ing and con­tin­ued until the polls closed at 3 P.M. local time, the mood across the island was one of cel­e­bra­tion. Cars bear­ing over­sized Amer­i­can flags or the ban­ners of the two main par­ties raced through the streets dur­ing the day and into the evening, their horns toot­ing and their pas­sen­gers lean­ing out the win­dows to chant polit­i­cal slo­gans.

At polling places, 5,611 of which were set up at schools around the island, elec­tion judges good-natured­ly kid­ded each oth­er about their par­ties’ chances; there were no imme­di­ate com­plaints of vot­ing irreg­u­lar­i­ties. Once the polls closed, sup­port­ers of the three options flocked to their respec­tive par­ty head­quar­ters to hear the results come in, danc­ing, singing, and eat­ing in the 85-degree heat as they wait­ed for the tab­u­la­tions to be post­ed.

At one polling place in Car­oli­na, anoth­er San Juan sub­urb, an ambu­lance drove up around mid­day, and elec­tion offi­cials car­ried an elder­ly vot­er to the booth so that he could vote. Radio sta­tions car­ried reports of com­mon­wealth par­ty vol­un­teers in many areas fer­ry­ing elder­ly or infirm sym­pa­thiz­ers to the polls so they could vote for the sta­tus quo.

“I have no doubt the suc­cess we are enjoy­ing now is the result of that effort by our mem­bers,” said Celeste Ben­itez, direc­tor of the com­mon­wealth cam­paign. She added that “state­hood­ers received a tremen­dous set­back, espe­cial­ly when you con­sid­er the eco­nom­ic resources they had at their dis­pos­al.” Less­er of Two Evils

But the com­mon­wealth total appar­ent­ly was also swelled by the adher­ence of some vot­ers who had declared them­selves in favor of inde­pen­dence. Faced with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Puer­to Rico enter­ing the union, they opt­ed for the less­er of what they viewed as two evils.

“In my heart, I’ve always been for inde­pen­dence,” said Car­los Fuentes, a 29-year-old teacher in Car­oli­na. “But the strong cam­paign effort and ad cam­paign of the state­hood­ers left me in sort of a pan­ic, and so I vot­ed for com­mon­wealth to make sure that state­hood would not win.”

At the same time, many vot­ers who last Novem­ber cast their bal­lots for Mr. Rossel­lo and the New Pro­gres­sive Par­ty, giv­ing them con­trol of two-thirds of the island’s munic­i­pal­i­ties, switched par­ties this time. They made it clear that though they were not crit­i­cal of Mr. Rossel­lo’s per­for­mance, they sim­ply could not com­mit them­selves to the dras­tic change in Puer­to Rico’s polit­i­cal sta­tus that he was advo­cat­ing.

“I always look for the best can­di­date, and I thought that was Rossel­lo,” said Jorge Val­car­cel, a res­i­dent of Caguas, about 20 miles south of the cap­i­tal. “But I believe in com­mon­wealth, and that’s what I vot­ed for.” RETHINKING PUERTO RICO, POLITICALLY

In Sun­day’s non­bind­ing plebiscite, Puer­to Rico grap­pled again with whether to remain a com­mon­wealth of the Unit­ed States, to become the 51st state or to become an inde­pen­dent nation. Polit­i­cal His­to­ry Puer­to Rico became a Unit­ed States ter­ri­to­ry in 1898, after the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. It was ruled by a pres­i­den­tial­ly appoint­ed gov­er­nor until 1947, when Con­gress vot­ed to allow Puer­to Ricans to elect their own gov­er­nor. Since 1900, the island has been rep­re­sent­ed in the Unit­ed States Con­gress by a non­vot­ing, local­ly elect­ed res­i­dent com­mis­sion­er. The com­mis­sion­er has a four-year term. Puer­to Ricans became Unit­ed States cit­i­zens in 1917, but they can­not vote for Pres­i­dent, are exempt from Fed­er­al tax­es and get lim­it­ed Fed­er­al aid. Com­mon­wealth In 1952 the cur­rent Con­sti­tu­tion of the Com­mon­wealth of Puer­to Rico was draft­ed by its elect­ed Con­stituent Assem­bly, approved in ref­er­en­dum by 80 per­cent of vot­ers and rat­i­fied by the Unit­ed States Con­gress. As a Com­mon­wealth, Puer­to Rico is part of the Unit­ed States for pur­pos­es of inter­na­tion­al trade, for­eign pol­i­cy and war (includ­ing mil­i­tary ser­vice), but has its own laws, tax­es and rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment. In a plebiscite in 1967, 60.5 per­cent of vot­ers were in favor of improved com­mon­wealth sta­tus rather than state­hood or inde­pen­dence. Pop­u­la­tion Puer­to Rico is home to 3.7 mil­lion peo­ple, of whom 2.3 mil­lion are reg­is­tered vot­ers. The 2.6 mil­lion Puer­to Ricans liv­ing on the Unit­ed States main­land could not vote in Sun­day’s plebiscite. Econ­o­my The island’s annu­al per capi­ta income in 1989 was $6,200, the high­est in Latin Amer­i­ca but about half that of the Unit­ed States main­land. Many man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, notably in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, depend on Sec­tion 936 of the Inter­nal Rev­enue Code, which shel­ters prof­its made in Puer­to Rico from Fed­er­al tax­es.