Puerto Rico residents head to the polls Sunday to vote on whether the island should become the 51st U.S. state, a prospect that the island’s pro-statehood governor Ricardo Rossello has been promoting as a way to help solve the island’s crippling debt crisis.
But the credibility of the vote has been dented by a boycott staged by all the main opposition parties, including those who want to uphold the status quo and those who want to make a break for full independence. Naturally, statehood supporters are expected to dominate the vote. Just how impactful the plebiscite will be depends on how many of the 2.3 million Puerto Ricans who are registered to vote can be persuaded to turn up to vote, and within that figure, what percentage opts for U.S. statehood.
Congress has final say over whether to approve the outcome of the referendum that offers voters three choices: statehood, free association/independence or the current territorial status.
But the endeavor faces an uphill battle. The U.S. territory has been shuttering schools and cutting pensions, while watching its residents flee to the U.S. mainland in search of work and its government forced to adhere to an oversight board’s dictates. The cost of this poll on the referendum is estimated to be between eight to eleven million dollars at a time when the island is in the middle of an economic crisis.
The government is wrestling with a formidable $73 billion debt and is currently in the courts under a U.S. federal district judge trying to negotiate a form of bankruptcy process. As a U.S. territory and not a state, the island cannot file for bankruptcy like other states’ municipalities.
Charlyn Gaztambide Janer, a communications specialist who does not support statehood, does not plan to vote on Sunday, reported NBC News.
Janer says, “It’s a big waste of money, to be quite honest. Puerto Rico is in the middle of an economic crisis. We can’t afford this. Why are we spending all this money on this (plebiscite) when it can be used to take care of other things that are much more urgent.”
Voicing similar concern, Carlos Delegado, secretary of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, told the Associated Press, “The cost of statehood on the pocketbook of every citizen, every business, every industry will be devastating. Whatever we might receive in additional federal funds will be cancelled 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.
Sunday’s referendum is the fifth for Puerto Rico. Three of the last four times, Puerto Rico residents voted against statehood (in 1967, 1993 and 1998).
The last referendum took place in 2012 where, for the first time ever, the majority of voters chose statehood, but it didn’t go anywhere.
If the Sunday’s vote turns out in favor of the statehood, another vote follows in October. The next step would be a statute passed by Congress that would lay out the details of the transition process over the next few years, which would end with statehood. If Congress does not pass a statute, Puerto Rico’s status remains as it is.
In an interview with the Guardian, governor Rossello said he was confident that Washington could be made to listen given a resounding result in Sunday’s poll. “Change is in the air. The US is the third largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world. It’s time to argue this out.”
Earlier this year in April, U.S. President Donald Trump had tweeted, “The Democrats want to shut government if we don’t bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. NO!”
Trump was referring to negotiations over a huge, government-wide spending bill that includes myriad elements, including abortion-related issues and Obama-era regulations on the environment on regulating Wall Street.
The Democrats want to shut government if we don't bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. NO!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 27, 2017
In his presidential campaign, Trump had said, “There are 3.7 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico. As citizens, they should be entitled to determine for themselves their political status. I am firmly committed to the process where Puerto Ricans might resolve their status according to Constitutional and Congressional protocols. I believe the people of Puerto Rico deserve a process of status self-determination that gives them a fair and unambiguous choice on this matter. As President I will do my part to ensure that Congress follows the Constitution. The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.”
[Featured Image by Danica Coto/AP Images]