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Puerto Rico Votes To Become 51st State, But What Does This Mean?

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On Sunday, Puerto Ricans voted on a plebiscite to decide whether they wanted to become the 51st state of the United States.

With roughly 23% of voter participation, the “statehood” option was chosen with 97% of the votes, by more than 502, 000 voters. The Independence option earned around 1.5% of the votes, and the ELA (Free Associated State or Commonwealth) current status earned 1.3% of the votes.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Puerto Rico will in fact become a state. The Caribbean island is subject to the “territorial clause” of Article IV of the US constitution. It’s up to Congress, which has the power to change the territory’s status, but has expressed no intention in doing so.

In theory, Congress is not required to act at all.  However, in 2012 the “President’s Taskforce on Puerto Rico’s Status,” recommended that the president and Congress should quickly enact whatever Puerto Ricans choose at the polls. As required by law, the Secretary of State will notify Congress and the President of the United States. The Republican-majority Congress is unlikely to make the change. This is because Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democrat, and changes in the distribution of electoral college votes could cause controversy with other states.

This is the fifth time Puerto Rico has voted on a status plebiscite in the last 50 years: the first one was in 1967, then 1993, 1998 and 2012. According to a Congressional Research Service report, the percentage in favor of statehood has increased from 39% in 1967, to 61% of valid votes cast in 2012.

This last status consultation, under the governance of  Luis Fortuño Burset of the New Progressive Party (PNP), was the most controversial.

There was confusion about the two questions presented in the ballot. The first asked whether the voter wanted to remain with the current status. If the response was YES, the voter could just deposit his or her ballot. But if the voter answered NO, it was then necessary to move to the second question, where they had to choose between being a State, being a sovereign commonwealth, or being independent.

In the first part of the consultation, 50% of voters said NO, and 46% said YES. Of the majority of the NO votes, 61.13% chose Statehood, 33.32% for the Sovereign ELA and 5.54% for the Independence.

For the first time, the majority of valid votes favored the annexation of Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the United States.

These results were repeated on Sunday’s consult. But the plebiscite took place in the midst of a significant economic crisis, and was marked by controversy.

The principal opposition parties called for a boycott of the election a few months ago, which resulted in an unprecedented abstention that undermines the reliability of the results. Furthermore, Congress hasn’t said whether they will accept the results yet, leaving the possibility of true statehood up in the air.  

Noticias WUFT interviewed three leaders of the main Puerto Rican parties about the referendum.

Here are their opinions:

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Popular Democratic Party

Acevedo Vilá, Governor of Puerto Rico from 2005 to 2009, said the referendum was a waste of time.

“Sadly this is a plebiscite that for many reasons is not legitimate, it’s not going to have any real effect in the U.S. whatsoever; it’s not going to move forward the conversation on Puerto Rico’s self-determination,” Acevedo Vilá, said. “It’s happening in a context where the governor in power first approved this measure without any type of dialogue with the opposition or with other groups of the civil society. So it’s just an artificial win for statehood.”

He added that the process had already been invalidated by the U.S. government, and that it mostly comes from an “ideological obsession” of the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico.

“It doesn’t represent the majority of the Puerto Rican people who are in the middle of an economic crisis. Especially when you’re taking away retirees benefits, closing schools and cutting money from the University of Puerto Rico,”  Acevedo Vilá, said.

He also explained the United States never adopted the annexation of Puerto Rico as part of its public policy, so the best solution, in his opinion, would be to renegotiate the current status and “turn it into a relation of political association that truly functions economically for the benefit of both nations.”

Juan Dalmau, Senator for the Puerto Rican Independence Party

Both the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the Popular Democratic Party proposed a boycott of the plebiscite in February. Dalmau, one of Puerto Rico’s most recognized Independence leaders, rejected the Sunday vote for including the current option.

“We decided to go to the boycott as a militant form of conscious protest in repudiation of the inclusion of the colony in this plebiscite,”  Dalmau, said. “That colonial model, which has already been repudiated by Puerto Ricans, can not be the option contained in the ballot in a plebiscite that is for decolonization, the problem can not be the solution. “

The Senator said they will resort to the United Nations to denounce, in the Decolonization Committee, the result of that plebiscite and continue insisting the United States “Congress opens the doors for Puerto Rico to lead to its own sovereignty. “

Dalmau insists the U.S. government will not address the problem of Puerto Rico “as long as the island’s economic crisis continues to be seen as a problem of Puerto Ricans” and not as an American problem.

Jose Enrique Melendez, New Progressive Party.

Finally, the Representative of the New Progressive Party, José Enrique Melendez said the quest for Puerto Rico’s statehood is not unprecedented and, for the time being, is the best option for the island.

“I know there’s economic worries about Puerto Rico, particularly because of the status,”  Meléndez, said. “But none of the territorial jurisdictions that became states were in good conditions, particularly Alaska and Hawaii, that were the last two states to be incorporated into the union.”

Melendez said it was precisely those economic difficulties what motivated the citizens of these territories to pursue statehood, and that after it was granted, they “experienced an incredible economic growth since then.”

Meléndez, along with his party, believe Puerto Rico’s case could be similar.

“The situation of the local government is not going to change overnight,” he said. “But it’s going to facilitate the transition so Puerto Rico can begin to get out of the crisis, because it is going to have the tools to compete with other states, and will have better jobs, economic development, and federal funds that today it doesn’t have. There will also be security for investors.”

In his eyes, Congress is willing to make Puerto Rico a state.

“I know there’s very conservative sectors that don’t really favor the idea of a hispanic state. But the benefits they would acquire are unmatched, especially as a bridge to Latin America. Plus, it’s time that justice is done for Puerto Ricans.”

About Clara Garcia

Clara is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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