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Puerto Rico Votes on Statehood

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Victoria Zelvin

While the eyes of many Americans last Tuesday were trained on the Presidential election, Puerto Rico in a referendum voted by a slim majority in favor of becoming the 51st state in the United States. The referendum is non-binding and will need to be approved by Congress, but it is the first step on the road to full-blown statehood.

The two-part referendum asked whether the island wanted to change its 114-year relationship with the United States. Nearly 54 percent, or 922,374 people, sought to change it, while 46 percent, or 786,749 people, favored the status quo. Ninety-six percent of 1,643 precincts were reporting as of early Wednesday. The next question asked of that 54 percent was what direction the future of Puerto Rico should take, and statehood took the majority with 61 percent of votes. The second runner up was sovereign free association with 33 percent, which would have allowed for more autonomous governance.

The small island is currently a US territory, whose citizens travel on US passports and who use the dollar as currency. Many people considered this request for a full union inevitable, especially those on the island. There are already very strong ties between Puerto Rico and the United States and there has been since the Spanish gave up the island to the US at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Since then, Puerto Rico has enjoyed several benefits of being a US Territory, while remaining a semi-autonomous self-governing country. US Congress and the president have ultimate control, providing social services, foreign policy and defense, but for the most part Puerto Rico has been left to its own devices. In 1917, its people became US citizens who were allowed to serve freely in the military, but who were not granted voting rights. Puerto Rico also has a representative that is granted only very limited voting rights, due to their territory status.

The island has been hit very hard by the recent recession, with 13% unemployment and around $68 billion in debt. The United States has a nationwide unemployment rate of around 7.9% and roughly $16 trillion in debt.

Granted, the status of the island depends as much on who governs it as it does US Congress. According to the partial results, pro-statehood Gov. Luis Fortuno was ousted by a razor thin margin by an opponent who supports the island’s current political status, challenger Alejandro Garcia Padilla with the Popular Democratic Party. The governor’s race is considered contested as more votes come in, but in spite of this Garcia has gone ahead and given his victory speech based off the partial results.

“I can assure you we have rescued Puerto Rico,” Garcia said. “This is a lesson to those who think that the well-being of Puerto Ricans should be subjected to ideologies.” What effect the governor’s election will have on Puerto Rico’s statehood bid remains to be seen.

The newly re-elected President Barack Obama, who visited the island last year on campaign, has said that he will support the will of Puerto Rico if there is a clear majority. There has been some debate as to whether or not Obama will consider the 54% majority to be enough of a clear majority to support the referendum. There is also a question of whether or not Congress will debate the results of the vote. No territory petitioning statehood outright has ever been denied by Congress.