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P. Ricans Give Up U.S. Citizenship

July 18, 1998

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Juan Mari Bras, a Puerto Rican independence activist, renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1995 and then got the State Department to formally revoke it.

Big mistake for Washington.

Soon, dozens of ``independentistas″ applied to repudiate their U.S. citizenship _ while claiming, as Mari Bras did, the right to continue living in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory taken from Spain 100 years ago.

Bolstered by a court ruling that Mari Bras could still vote in island elections, the Puerto Rican citizenship movement threatened to become a stampede in this centennial year of the U.S. invasion.

Having opened a Pandora’s box, the State Department reversed itself June 3. It told Mari Bras that, like it or not, he was again a U.S. citizen _ because he didn’t register as a resident alien.

``Puerto Rico is a part of the United States,″ it declared.

Though few Puerto Ricans favor independence, Mari Bras did stir a deep sense of nationality that has survived U.S. occupation and is shared by Puerto Rican politicians of all stripes.

He also fueled a decades-old debate over Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship _ for most a prized, if second-class, birthright.

Unsure what to do with its new possession, Congress in 1900 denied Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship while establishing a colonial government on the island. It created an entity called ``the People of Puerto Rico″ _ citizens of Puerto Rico entitled to U.S. protection.

That changed in 1917, when Congress extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. But it was statutory _ meaning citizenship can be revoked by Congress.

That prospect, however remote, is central to today’s debate on Puerto Rico’s status. A bill now in Congress would allow islanders to choose among independence, the current ``commonwealth″ status or statehood _ which would be the only permanent guarantee of citizenship.

Mari Bras’ renunciation had little practical effect until Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled he could vote in 1996 elections, arguing that Mari Bras’ ``Puerto Rican nationality is undeniable.″

``That ruling scared me,″ said Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer, a statehood advocate who challenged Mari Bras’ right to vote and lost. ``It showed me how things could really change in Puerto Rico without a democratic vote.″

The pro-statehood governor, Pedro Rossello, played down the ruling, but Mari Bras’ supporters say he forced Puerto Ricans to confront their problematic national situation.

The State Department’s recent ruling ``constitutes a humiliating clarification of colonial reality,″ said Manuel Rodriguez Orellana, an Independence Party leader.

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