Puerto Rico Votes In Favor Of Becoming A State

Posted June 12, 2017

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Puerto Rico's governor announced that the US 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 USA mainland.

Congress has the final say over whether the territory changes its status, making the vote merely an advisory opinion.

In 2012, the last time statehood was put up to a vote and won, Congress did not take action to make it the 51st state.

Lopez Rivera said last week he would not accept the title of National Freedom Hero organizers first granted him but would instead join the parade as a regular citizen, partly because the focus was too much on him and not enough on the plight of Puerto Rico.

"I hope after 100 years of being a territory of the United States, we can send a message to Congress in the U.S. that Puerto Rico is ready to do something with its future", said Marco Rodriguez, a voter in Guaynabo.

Rossello will ask Congress to respect the result, but Puerto Rico is seen as a low priority in Washington. He dismissed the boycott of the vote announced by the opposition parties as a sham.

For decades the territory enjoyed a USA federal tax exemption that attracted many American companies to set up shop - but those breaks were ended in 2006, prompting firms to leave the island en masse. Puerto Rico's attempt to restructure its debt, a bankruptcy-like proceeding tailor-made for its status as a territory, vastly outpaces similar municipal bankruptcies like Detroit's $18.5 billion Chapter 9 filing in 2013. While Puerto Ricans are American citizens and contribute to Social Security and Medicare, they do not vote for the US president, and their single representative in Congress has no vote.

Results showed that 97.2 percent of those who voted wanted statehood, 1.5 percent supported independence and 1.3 percent backed no change.

But going by the actions of most Puerto Ricans, staying home or going to the beach was the runaway victor.

About 1.3 million Puerto Ricans cast ballots in the last referendum in 2012, which also saw a majority support for statehood.

Becoming the 51st star on the USA flag would instill "new hope" in Puerto Ricans, she told AFP, as well as sorely needed economic aid.

Only 23 percent of the 2,260,804 registered Puerto Rican voters participated.

Puerto Rico's hazy political status, dating back to its 1898 acquisition by the United States from Spain, has contributed to the economic crisis that pushed it last month into the biggest municipal bankruptcy in USA history.

Congress, the only body that can approve new states, will ultimately decide whether the status of the U.S. commonwealth changes.

Governor Ricardo Rossello, right, and Congresswoman representing Puerto Rico Jennifer Gonzalez celebrate the results of a referendum on the status of the island, at the New Progressive Party headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, June 11, 2017.

"In the democratic process there is no such thing as a boycott", he said. Those who remain behind have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the US mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive.

As a territory, the island has very little power and hardly any voice in government.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department told The Associated Press that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot's language. Federal officials in April rejected an original version, in part because it did not offer the territory's current status as an option.

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

Still the result is hardly as convincing as Rosselló claims.