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Debt Crisis Gives Urgency to Puerto Rico's Coming Statehood Vote

Congress ultimately has control over Puerto Rico's fate. But a June 11 plebiscite could affect the island's politics – and its finances.
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Julie Schwietert Collazo

As Puerto Ricans in New York gather this weekend for an annual parade riven by debate over its Board of Directors’ decision to honor nationalist Oscar López Rivera, Puerto Ricans on the island will be discussing, and voting on, another hot topic: the island’s complicated relationship to the United States.

Voters in Sunday’s plebiscite will have to choose between statehood, independence, or the continuation of its current territorial status, and the discussion has stirred up sentiment and dominated conversation everywhere, from markets to offices to corner bars.

“I am voting pro statehood but have no problem if we become independent,” said Jesús Ayala, 69, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran from Caguas, Puerto Rico. “The illegal colony for 119 years has to end. We need the liberty of representation in U.S. government or the independence to take charge of our destiny as a nation.”

If there’s something on which Puerto Ricans agree, it’s that they want change, said Doug Mack, who traveled the U.S.’ insular areas – Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands – while researching his book The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-flung Outposts of the USA.

“Even people who prefer to maintain the existing political set-up generally want to tweak it, arguing for an ‘enhanced’ commonwealth status, which is to say more autonomy,” he said.

Plebiscites about status are not new on the island, where residents were granted U.S. citizenship exactly one century ago. The last vote was held in 2012. Why has the administration of Governor Ricky Rosselló, who was just sworn into office on Jan. 2, fast-tracked this new poll? One reason might be to show that he’s attempting to address the island’s profound economic woes, which have recently grown to include a torrent of lawsuits over missed debt payments. Many Puerto Ricans believe the financial mess they’re in was at least complicated by Puerto Rico’s unique legal status, which does not afford it autonomy to restructure its debt independent of the U.S. government.

Should statehood triumph, Rosselló could have a stronger case for renegotiating the island’s $70 billion debt with the federal government.   

The lead-up to the vote has been heated. Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (PNP), which supports statehood, has been campaigning actively, covering San Juan with “Vote Statehood” posters. Rosselló himself made an emotional appeal to Puerto Ricans, touting the perceived benefits of statehood: an improved economy that would allow islanders living on the mainland to come home. “It’s time for our loved ones to come home, it’s time for our families to reunite. This Sunday, go vote in the plebiscite,” he tweeted in Spanish.

The Independence Party, on the other hand, is encouraging a boycott. Party vice-president María de Lourdes Santiago wrote in an editorial in El Nuevo Día, one of the island’s newspapers, that the plebiscite is “unilateral,” and criticized the Rosselló administration for “lowering its head” and displaying the typical “colonized instinct” when the Department of Justice insisted that the continuation of the commonwealth had to be included as a third option on the voting form instead of only independence or statehood as originally planned.

Most island residents are siding with Rosselló – statehood is expected to get most of the votes. It did in 2012 as well, though that plebiscite consisted of two questions. The first asked a “Yes/No” question: whether Puerto Ricans wanted to maintain the current commonwealth status. Fifty-four percent of voters indicated they did not.

The second question invited voters to indicate a preference for statehood, independence, or a “sovereign free associated state.” Just over 61 percent of voters chose statehood. That outcome caused some ripples in Washington, D.C., and then-President Obama allocated $2.5 million for voter education in Puerto Rico for a future plebiscite.

Meanwhile, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R.-A.K.) and then-Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) argued that an enhanced commonwealth status would be unconstitutional. Thus, Puerto Rico remained in its century-old limbo.

Despite the intensity of the debate this time, and the dire state of the island’s economy, Sunday’s vote will have no immediate practical consequence. That’s because the power to change Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States lies with Congress, not with the residents of Puerto Rico, said Jorge Duany, author of the recently published book, Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know.

And although the vote for statehood is leading in polls, Congress is highly unlikely to ratify it, especially with its current Republican majority. The admission of Puerto Rico as a state would change representation dramatically; although the political parties in Puerto Rico are distinct from those in the U.S., most Puerto Ricans would likely register as Democrats and their sheer number would alter significantly the make-up of Congress.

The island’s economic crisis is another reason Congress would look away, said Duany. “Congress is unlikely to admit a state that’s bankrupt,” he said, adding that under a Trump administration, it’s also unlikely to consider admitting a state where Spanish is the primary language.

Why hold a vote if the results won’t be enacted? The answer is as complicated as the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. has been since 1898, when the island was transferred from Spain to the U.S. as a spoil in the Spanish-American War. While Puerto Ricans are citizens, the benefits of that status have been partial: they can vote in presidential primaries, but not in November elections. They do not have voting senators or representatives in Washington, D.C. And, of course, they cannot truly determine their own destiny – the issue at the heart of the plebiscite.

Still, the result of Sunday’s vote, symbolic as it is, will carry political weight. Puerto Rico’s plebiscites are a way to take the current temperature of the island vis-à-vis its status, helping local politicians assess the mood of islanders and, by extension, which party they’re likely to vote for at home.

Beyond the island, the results will be closely watched not just in Washington, D.C., but also in other insular areas like Guam, which has a growing independence movement. If calls for statehood or independence increase among the insular areas, they could create a bloc that eventually pressures the U.S. to resolve its colonial relationships. This year’s vote could be a step in that direction, despite the Independence Party’s call for a boycott, which might lower turn-out.

So what will happen after the votes are counted? Little concrete change, and likely much frustration for Puerto Ricans, as has been the case for more than century. However, Washington will be forced to at least acknowledge – if not act upon – Puerto Ricans’ preference regarding the island’s status.

Trump, for his part, seems to be unaware of the referendum. He hasn’t tweeted about it at all. 

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Schwietert Collazo (@collazoprojects) is a bilingual freelance journalist and writer who covers Latin America - especially Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico - and Latino/a USA for a variety of publications. She has lived in San Juan and Mexico City and currently lives in New York City.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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