SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Monday June 12, 2017 – Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello has announced that the US island territory has overwhelmingly chosen statehood in a nonbinding referendum held yesterday amid a deep economic crisis that has driven hundreds of thousands of its citizens to the US mainland.
According to preliminary results, nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood, more than 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for retaining the current territorial status.
The participation rate was just 23 percent with roughly 2.26 million registered voters, prompting opponents to question the validity of a vote that several parties had boycotted.
Rossello was nevertheless upbeat in announcing the result.
“From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico,” he said.
“It would be highly contradictory for Washington to demand democracy in other parts of the world, and not respond to the legitimate right to self-determination that was exercised today in the American territory of Puerto Rico.”
The US Congress, however, has the final say on any changes that may be made to the island’s political status.
The governor nevertheless vowed to push ahead with his administration’s quest for statehood, which was his top campaign promise. He said he would create a commission to ensure that Congress validate the referendum’s results.
“In any democracy, the expressed will of the majority that participates in the electoral processes always prevails,” he said. “Puerto Rico voted for statehood.”
The referendum coincided with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting US citizenship to Puerto Ricans, although they cannot vote in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.
It is widely thought that the island’s territorial status has contributed to its 10-year economic recession, which has seen nearly half a million Puerto Ricans flee to the US mainland and is said to have been largely sparked by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives.
Although exempt from US federal income tax, Puerto Rico still pays Social Security, Medicare and local taxes and receives less federal funding than US states.
The island’s 3.4 million people struggle with a 12 percent unemployment rate and have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills. Food is 22 percent more expensive than that on the US mainland and public services are 64 percent costlier.
Opponents of statehood are nevertheless concerned that the island will lose its cultural identity and warn that Puerto Rico will struggle even more financially because it will be forced to pay millions of dollars in federal taxes.