Puerto Rico Overwhelmingly Say Yes To Statehood But Will Congress Approve?

The governor of Puerto Rico says that the United States territory has overwhelmingly voted for statehood in a recent non-binding referendum held on the island. Now Congress has to decide on whether to honor this referendum and officially recognize the island as the 51st state.

Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans voted for statehood compared to more than 7,600 who voted for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 who wanted full independence. With the result of the referendum, Gov. Ricardo Rosello says that the island sent a strong message to the U.S. Congress and the world.

But many are concerned about the vote’s validity given the presence of several opposition parties who boycotted the referendum as well as the dismal turnout rate. The Chicago Tribune reported that out of the island’s 2.26 million registered voters only an estimated 23 percent participated in the polls.

The landslide victory led many critics to believe that only those who supported statehood went to the polls. Former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá says the skewed numbers could actually hurt the island’s cause, saying that a 97 percent win is “the kind of result you get in a one-party regime.”

Nevertheless, the final say regarding Puerto Rican statehood lies with Congress despite the referendum’s outcome. For the longest time, the territory has pleaded to become the 51st state but this request has been repeatedly turned down.

Ricard Rosello triumphant after Puerto Rico referendum
Gov. RIcardo Rossello is determined to make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the United States. [Carlos Giusti/AP Images]

Among those eager for the U.S. territory to become the 51st state is Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s former congressional representative. Pierlusi echoed the governor’s words on Sunday saying that Puerto Ricans sent a loud and clear message.

“We Puerto Ricans not only want our U.S. citizenship, but we want equal treatment.”

The referendum coincided with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting citizenship to the island’s residents. This happened nearly 20 years after it was acquired from Spain following the Spanish-American War in 1898.

According to the New York Times, since becoming de jure-wise a part of the U.S. Puerto Rico has voted on their future five times, with Sunday’s referendum being the most recent. Each time, they have generally chosen statehood, independence, or maintaining the status quo.

However, the results of these referendums were hardly reliable due to fact that most results favor whichever party was in power. Take the last two referendums in 1998 and in 2012 for example.

In the 1998 referendum, the top choice among Puerto Ricans was “none of the above” while in 2012 referendum voted heavily in favor of statehood, with the rest of the ballots left blank. No matter the results, however, Congress stood firm on island’s political status and it remained a U.S. territory.

As a territory, the island has very little power and hardly any voice in government. Residents cannot vote despite being considered citizens and they have a representative in Congress who is more or less just an observer with no real legislative powers.

But political reasons are the least of the island’s concerns going into the referendum. For over a decade the island has been facing an economic crisis and is in desperate need of a respite.

The crisis and the ballooning public debt has led the island to shut down even the most basic social services including hospitals. The previous governor even admitted that they are unable to pay back its debt due to the current state of their economy.

However, this very crisis could deter Congress from granting statehood to the territory. Add to that the heavy opposition at home from pro-independence and pro-territory parties and the prospect of being the 51st state looks rather bleak.

Pro-independence supporters protest against Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state. [Carlos Giusti/AP Images]

But according to the The Hill, Gov. Rosello remains determined to make his island a part of the United States. Just last week, Rosello signed a law intended to force Congress to act in accordance with the results of the recent referendum.

He also plans to send two senators and five representatives to Washington and request their seats to be given. The same tactic was used by Tennessee to be admitted into the Union over 200 years ago and has forever been known as the Tennessee Plan.

Using such heavy-handed techniques to acquire statehood seems too over the top. But with Puerto Rico on the brink of economic collapse, desperation can force even the most diplomatic person to become an extortionist.

[Featured Image by Carlos Giusti/AP Images]