Puerto Rico voters boycott statehood poll
Only 1 in 5 want to join the US
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.
A masked protester in favour of Puerto Rico’s independence demonstrates after a referendum was held on the island’s status.