Puerto Rico vot­ers boy­cott state­hood poll

Only 1 in 5 want to join the US

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

PUERTO Rico’s fifth plebiscite on Sun­day on whether to be­come an in­de­pen­dent coun­try; the 51st US state; or re­main a US ter­ri­tory; was char­ac­terised by a stag­ger­ing 78% voter ab­sten­tion af­ter the in­de­pen­dence move­ment called for a boy­cott of what it termed an il­le­gal vote.

With 97% of the vote in, state­hood won in a non-bind­ing ref­er­en­dum that the US colo­nial power does not have to recog­nise.

Ac­cord­ing to data pub­lished on the web­site of the State Elec­tions Com­mis­sion, a to­tal of 476 635 vot­ers out of the 2.8 mil­lion el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, chose state­hood.

Af­ter 92% of votes were counted, 97.2% had voted in favour of be­com­ing a US state.

Be­com­ing the 51st US state in any case de­pends on the US Congress, where there is lit­tle en­thu­si­asm for the move.

Vot­ers on the Span­ish-speak­ing is­land had three choices – in­de­pen­dence, full US state­hood or main­tain­ing the ter­ri­to­rial stand­ing it has held since 1898.

Puerto Ri­cans are US cit­i­zens, but have lim­ited vot­ing rights and rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress. They can freely en­ter the US, where they can serve in the army.

Crit­ics of the cur­rent sys­tem de­ride it as a ves­tige of colo­nial­ism.

In­de­pen­dence groups, along with three po­lit­i­cal par­ties, called for a boy­cott of the bal­lot as a protest against the gov­ern­ment spend­ing $7.5 mil­lion on the elec­tion in the mid­dle of a bud­get cri­sis that has forced the is­land to adopt harsh aus­ter­ity mea­sures, mak­ing its colo­nial sta­tus more acute as the coun­try can­not solve the cri­sis with­out US ap­proval.

Crit­ics also pointed out that the US Depart­ment of Jus­tice has not sup­ported the plebiscite.

“I’m not vot­ing. The gov­ern­ment has spent mil­lions of dol­lars on this cam­paign hop­ing that state­hood wins, but even if it does, the US Congress won’t want to do any­thing about it,” Felix Salasarar said.

The boy­cott seemed to have struck a chord with vot­ers, amid a debt cri­sis, grow­ing protests against aus­ter­ity mea­sures and the re­cent re­lease by the US of in­de­pen­dence leader Oscar Lopez Rivera.

Puerto Rico in­de­pen­dence ac­tivists held a car­a­van dur­ing the vote in the cap­i­tal of San Juan out­side the US Fed­eral Court build­ing.

Vice-pres­i­dent of the Puerto Ri­can In­de­pen­dence Party, Maria de Lour­des San­ti­ago, de­scribed the elec­toral ex­er­cise as a fail­ure.

“The re­sult of the plebiscite is a fail­ure for those who were al­lowed to im­pose the in­clu­sion of the colo­nial op­tion and only served to drama­tise dis­in­ter­est and re­jec­tion of any project of an­nex­a­tion.”

Those who sup­port state­hood, like Gov­er­nor Ri­cardo Ros­sello, claimed that the change in sta­tus would help re­solve the is­land’s $123 bil­lion debt load, in­clud­ing pen­sion debts. Ros­sello said that be­ing in­cor­po­rated into the US would al­low Puerto Rico to be­come a “diplo­matic cen­tre and a busi­ness cen­tre of the Amer­i­cas”.

Groups that back the cur­rent com­mon­wealth sta­tus, like the Pop­u­lar Demo­cratic Party, called for a boy­cott of the plebiscite, claim­ing the vote is “in­valid” and “rigged”.

A spokesper­son for the gov­er­nor said he would push Congress to re­spect a re­sult in favour of state­hood, say­ing the is­land will pur­sue the Ten­nessee Plan, un­der which US ter­ri­to­ries send a con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion to Wash­ing­ton.

Puerto Rico’s abil­ity to deal with its debt cri­sis has been crip­pled by its le­gal sta­tus as a colony of the US, which bars the is­land from fil­ing for bankruptcy. An ini­tial au­dit re­port found that up to $30bn of Puerto Rico’s debt load was is­sued il­le­gally.

De­spite their cit­i­zen­ship, Puerto Rico’s 3.4 mil­lion-strong pop­u­la­tion can­not par­tic­i­pate in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, and their con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion in Wash­ing­ton has no vot­ing rights. In the last four ref­er­enda on the is­sue the sta­tus quo tri­umphed, with the votes sup­port­ing in­de­pen­dence roughly split with those sup­port­ing state­hood.

PIC­TURE: AP

A masked protester in favour of Puerto Rico’s in­de­pen­dence demon­strates af­ter a ref­er­en­dum was held on the is­land’s sta­tus.

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