SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno has proposed a two-step election next year to determine whether Puerto Ricans want to remain a U.S. territory.
The Caribbean island's political parties alternately view the plebiscite as a step toward improving its economic future, a chance to shake off the vestiges of its colonial past, or a ploy by Fortuno to win a second term.
Under legislation that Fortuno's party introduced on Wednesday, voters would be asked on August 12, 2012, whether they want to change Puerto Rico's political status.
If the majority votes "yes," a second ballot would ask them to choose among three nonterritorial options -- U.S. statehood, independence or sovereign free association. That question would be on the November 6, 2012, ballot, in which Fortuno is seeking a second four-year term.
If a majority votes "no" in August, no further step would be taken.
Any change in Puerto Rico's status would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress.
"The island's status is an issue that affects every aspect of our daily lives, including employment opportunities, health services, public safety, our children's education and our very rights as citizens," Fortuno said during an address broadcast Tuesday.
Fortuno is a Republican and president of Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party, which favors U.S. statehood for the island of nearly 4 million people.
"The current status provides us with neither the means nor the powers that are needed to achieve the growth we need in the years ahead. That's one thing we all agree on," Fortuno said.
The bill authorizing the plebiscite is expected to win approval in the legislature, where his party holds a majority.
Applauding the plan, Juan Dalmau, secretary general of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, said in a radio interview that Puerto Rico needed to fight crime and improve its economy, problems he blamed on "the cancer of colonialism."
But supporters of the Popular Democratic Party, which favors keeping Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. commonwealth, called it a "smoke screen" aimed at hiding Fortuno's record on crime and the economy, while whipping up statehood support that would boost his re-election bid.
Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for nearly 400 years, until Spain ceded it to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who pay into Social Security, receive federal welfare benefits and serve in the armed forces, but cannot vote in presidential elections and do not pay federal income tax.
Puerto Ricans have voted to remain a U.S. commonwealth in past status votes, but the margin of victory has decreased over the years.
(Editing by Jane Sutton and Mohammad Zargham)