Puerto Rican voters back U.S. statehood in referendum.
Supporters say move would help with economic crisis
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO | Puerto Rico’s governor announced that the U.S. territory overwhelmingly chose statehood Sunday in a nonbinding referendum held amid a deep economic crisis that has sparked an exodus of islanders to the U.S. mainland.
Nearly a half-million votes were cast for statehood, about 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for the current territorial status, according to preliminary results.
Voter turnout was just 23 percent, leading opponents to question the validity of a vote that several political parties had urged their supporters to boycott.
The U.S. Congress has final say in any changes to Puerto Rico’s political status.
But that didn’t stop Gov. Ricardo Rossello from vowing to push ahead with his administration’s quest to make the island the 51st U.S. state and declaring that “Puerto Rico voted for statehood.” He said he would create a commission to ensure that Congress validate the referendum’s results.
“In any democracy, the expressed will of the majority that participates in the electoral processes always prevails,” Mr. Rossello said. “It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico.”
It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, according to Carlos Vargas Ramos, an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.
He also said that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the last referendum in 2012.
“Supporters of statehood did not seem enthusiastic about this plebiscite as they were five years ago,” he said.
Puerto Rico is exempt from the federal income tax, but it still pays Social Security and Medicare and local taxes and receives less federal funding than the states. The referendum coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting citizenship to Puerto Ricans, though the territory does not vote in presidential elections and has only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.
Among those hoping Puerto Rico will become a state is Jose Alvarez, a 61-yearold businessman.
“Now is the moment to do it,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of years working on a socioeconomic model that has not necessarily given us the answer.”
Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans have moved to the U.S. mainland in the past decade to find a more affordable cost of living or jobs as the island of 3.4 million people struggles with a 12 percent unemployment rate.
Those who remain behind have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the U.S. mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive.
Those who oppose statehood worry the island will lose its cultural identity and warn that Puerto Rico will struggle even more financially because it will be forced to pay millions of dollars in federal taxes.
“The cost of statehood on the pocketbook of every citizen, every business, every industry will be devastating,” Carlos Delegado, secretary of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, told The Associated Press. “Whatever we might receive in additional federal funds will be canceled by the amount of taxes the island will have to pay.”
His party also has noted that the U.S. Justice Department has not backed the referendum.
A department spokesman told the AP that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot’s language. Federal officials in April rejected an original version, in part because it did not offer the territory’s current status as an option.
Puerto Rican resident Ciriaca Perez votes during the fifth referendum on the island’s status, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sunday. Congress ultimately has to approve the outcome that offered voters three choices: statehood, independence or remain a territory.
“In any democracy, the expressed will of the majority that participates in the electoral process always prevails,” said Ricardo Rossello, the governor of Puerto Rico.