Puerto Rico overwhelmingly votes for possible statehood

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Puerto Rico's governor announced that the USA territory overwhelmingly chose statehood on Sunday in a nonbinding referendum held amid a deep economic crisis that has sparked an exodus of islanders to the US mainland.

The island's two main opposition parties boycotted the vote, which gave Puerto Ricans three options: becoming a US state; remaining a territory; or becoming an independent nation, with or without some continuing political association with the United States. About 1.5 percent of voters were in favor of independence or free association with the United States and 1.3 percent voted for the current territorial status.

Ninety-seven percent of the votes favored statehood but voter participation was just 23% after opposition parties called for a boycott of what they called a "rigged" process in part over the ballot language. While Gov. Ricardo Rosello said the vote sent a strong message to Washington, the Puerto Rican government hasn't approved a request for statehood, and the final decision rests with Congress.

Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since a law made them so in 1917.

However, this very crisis could deter Congress from granting statehood to the territory. Residents of the island are USA citizens but they do not vote for president and do not pay federal taxes.

If Puerto Rico were a state, it could declare itself insolvent under U.S. bankruptcy laws.

Those in favor of statehood for the mainly Spanish-speaking Caribbean island hope the new status would put the territory on equal standing with the 50 USA states, giving them more access to federal funds and the right to vote for president.

The former member of a militant, nationalist Puerto Rican group was greeted Sunday with some boos and cheers but most spectators just watched the festivities.

Puerto Rico has effectively been in a state of bankruptcy following a decade of depression.

But, on the merits, do you think we should add Puerto Rico's star to the flag?

Puerto Rico is suffering from about $123 billion in debt and has been battling a recession for the past 10 years.

Among those eager for the USA territory to become the 51st state is Pedro Pierluisi, the island's former congressional representative. In the last such vote held in 2012, the island had voted in favour for statehood but the results were not taken into account and no action based on it was initiated.

"We don't care that he is here", said Rosa Rosario, a 68-year-old New Yorker. "If we were a state, we would have the same rights".

Sunday's ballot was changed to include "current territorial status" as a voting option; however, CNN reported people still called for a boycott of the rigged system.

Rossello, 38, came to power in January on the promise that he would work to end a long "colonial" relationship with the United States and make the island the 51st state.

No clear majority emerged in the first three referendums on status, with voters nearly evenly divided between statehood and the status quo.

"We will now take these results to Washington, D.C., with the strong support of not only a duly executed electoral exercise, but also of a contingency of national and global observers, who can attest to the fact that the process was fair, well organized and democratic", Rosselló said. During the last referendum in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a status change. Residents can not 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.

  • Zachary Reyes