Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has said that despite very low voter turnout in the island’s June 11 non-binding referendum, the outcome was “fair and open”, and the decision should be acted upon by the US Federal Government. Voter turnout was just 23%, following widespread calls to boycott the vote.
Despite those who favour statehood arguing that they received a resounding endorsement from 97% of those voting, the outcome of the referendum is not expected to convince the US Congress to take the process forward.
The result of the vote comes during a period of economic and political uncertainty in Puerto Rico. The island is US$74bn in debt, and remains unable to fulfil pension obligations of US$49bn. It is also struggling with high levels of unemployment, ambivalence from policymakers in Washington, dissent over the territory’s future, and a loss of human capital as thousands of Puerto Ricans continue to leave for the continental US in search of better opportunities. A Federal Oversight Board within the New York Fed is currently overseeing the restructuring of the island’s debt and austerity programme.
Puerto Rico’s two main opposition parties boycotted the vote, which gave the electorate three options: becoming a US state; remaining a territory; or becoming an independent nation, with or without some form of political relationship with the United States. At present the island has one representative in Congress who cannot vote.
Many of those who voted for statehood hoped that a new status would provide greater access to federal funds and the ability to participate in US Presidential elections.
Although the federal government is responsible for defence, trade policy, and infrastructure, the island’s 3.5m citizens do not benefit from other US programmes such as Medicaid and social security, despite being US citizens. The territory’s ambiguous status dates back to its acquisition by the US in 1898 at the end of the Spanish American war.
Héctor Ferrer, the head of the Popular Democratic Party, which had urged a boycott of the vote, said that the governing party had manipulated the ballot language. He also criticised the Administration’s decision to proceed with the referendum without having received final approval from the US Department of Justice. This meant that they were not provided with US financial support of US$2.5m for which they would otherwise have been eligible, at a time when funding for many public services including schools had been withdrawn.
Commenting on the outcome, Puerto Rico’s former Governor, Rafael Hernandez Colon, said in a statement: “A contrived plebiscite fabricated an artificial majority for statehood by disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth supporters.” Governor Rosselló, of the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista, has said that he now plans to press Puerto Rico’s case for statehood in the US Congress.
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Photo Credit: Speijen, ‘Gobernador de Puerto Rico’, http://bit.ly/2jWd9uE, Wikimedia Commons (Cropped)