Thursday, 20 September, 2018

Puerto Rico upholds statehood demand in contentious vote

Puerto Ricans hold another election to decide on the island Puerto Ricans hold another election to decide on the island's political status
Ellis Copeland | 18 June, 2017, 02:42

A referendum was posed to Puerto Ricans on Sunday to determine whether Puerto Rico would change it's status as a US territory to become either a state or an independent nation.

Puerto Ricans who voted for US statehood in a non-binding referendum Sunday are "claiming our equal rights as American citizens", Puerto Rico's governor says.

The results of Sunday's referendum are non-binding as only the U.S. Congress has the power to change the territory's political status.

Asked which status Puerto Rico should have, more than 97 percent of voters chose statehood, against 1.5 percent who chose independence or free association and 1.3 percent who prefer to stay as a territory.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his legislature-majority New Progressive Party [Republican] held the referendum, despite filing on May 3 for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. Rossello said that being incorporated into the USA would allow Puerto Rico to become a "diplomatic center and a business center of the Americas". Sixty-one percent who answered a second question said they favored statehood, but almost half a million voters left that question blank, leading many to claim the results were not legitimate.

The validity of the referendum, which came amid an economic crisis that has forced the island into bankruptcy and caused the ailing government to install grim austerity measures, has been challenged by opposition parties due to a low turnout.

The US Congress, however, has the final say on any changes that may be made to the island's political status.

Despite the low turnout, Governor Ricardo Rossello vowed to push for the territory to become the 51st U.S. state after casting his vote for statehood.

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Puerto Rico has a huge debt load of $70 billion - or about $20,000 for every man, woman and child living on the island. Voter turnout was just 23 percent. "They don't realize that people fight in American wars and pay social security".

The standing of this tropical Caribbean island in relation to the U.S. has been the running sore, and dominant topic of local conversation, ever since it was handed to Washington as war booty at the end of the Spanish-American war of 1898. But, only 500,000 Puerto Rican citizens turned out at the polls to submit their decision on the non-binding referendum.

In this July 29, 2015 file photo, the Puerto Rican flag flies in front of Puerto Rico's Capitol as in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thanks to its triple-tax-exemption (interest is free from federal, state, or local income taxation), individual investors and tax-exempt bond funds have been soaking up the island's debt offerings for years, allowing it to spend far beyond its means. Federal officials in April rejected an original version, in part because it did not offer the territory's current status as an option. 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. The most recent was in 2012, where the majority voted in favor of statehood, but Congress never picked up the matter.

"Puerto Rico is actually dealing with a huge economic and debt crisis" and its economy has shrunk ten percent in the last ten years; 45 percent of people there live below the poverty line. "We need to be able to decide our own fate", said Liliana Laboy, one of the organizers of the protest.

The leader of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), Carlos Delgado, called the result of the election a blow to the credibility of Governor Ricardo Rossello.

The next step in determining statehood for Puerto Rico would be for Congress to pass a statute detailing the transition process.

Rosselló will go to the United States capital armed with a 97% backing for statehood from voters in Sunday's plebiscite on the future of the stricken U.S. colony.

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