When Puerto Ricans vote Sunday on the political future for the U.S. territory, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is confident most will choose statehood.
“It’s unfortunate U.S. citizens here don’t have the same power,” he said. “We need to take action.”
But in some ways, the timing couldn’t be worse. With a political divide on the island, a deepening economic crisis and — critically — a lack of congressional support to become the 51st American state, experts say the vote seems unlikely to result in any real change.
“Now is the worst time and the worst manner to deal with the issue,” said Federico de Jesús, a Puerto Rico native and the former deputy director of the Governor of Puerto Rico’s Washington, D.C., office, under former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, a member of the Popular Democratic Party who opposes statehood. “All parties agree that the current system needs to be modified, but this is definitely the wrong course of action.”
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This will be the island’s fifth referendum asking Puerto Ricans to choose statehood, independence or keep some version of the current status as a commonwealth. Opposition groups who don’t believe in statehood and felt unrepresented on the ballot — which originally included only statehood and independence/free association — are boycotting the vote, and experts say a statehood verdict doesn’t necessarily represent what the population wants.
Rosselló said a statehood vote would be legitimate, adding that anyone who doesn’t vote in the upcoming plebiscite is “mostly driven by partisan politics.”
“The plebiscite has to be for a future solution to the status issue, which implied that the current status was not a solution,” he said. “This goes to the roots of what it means to be American, what it means to be part of a nation that shares the same democratic values, human rights, freedom ... and all of those components are being severely hampered.”
Independence would give Puerto Ricans complete freedom as a nation, and free association would provide the territory with independence while establishing a mutual agreement with the United States that is defined by a compact.
“To expect other than a vote for statehood is unrealistic,” said Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York’s Hunter College.
But he warned: “The result is not legitimate (because) you have one faction of the political process.”
And that perception is likely to influence Congress as well, said Anthony Suarez, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida and whose parents are from Puerto Rico.
For statehood to win approval, the House and Senate must both vote to approve it, and the president must sign off on it. The last states to be added were Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.
With so many voters expected to stay home from the polls, the result won’t “reflect the will of the people,” making Congress unlikely to consider accepting Puerto Rico as a state, Suarez added.
“If they ignore the will of the people, they’re ignoring the will of American citizens, and they’re ignoring a democratic process, which becomes a very problematic assertion,” Rosselló said. “You’re keeping the will of the people of Puerto Rico, who are American citizens, somewhat in the shadows.”
Puerto Ricans themselves haven’t been united on what they want, but without a majority of voters saying yes to statehood, Congress won’t even consider the idea, noted Amilcar Barreto, an associate professor of political science, international affairs and public policy at Northeastern University.
“For the past half-century, preferences for the three status options have essentially been locked,” Barreto said. “The statehood movement is frustrated. … They can’t seem to get that majority because the electorate is divided.”
And there’s a new wrinkle this time around.
If a majority of voters pick the independence/free association option, a second referendum will be held on Oct. 8 that would ask Puerto Ricans to choose between the two, according to the official plebiscite proclamation.
Of Puerto Rico’s three major political parties, members of the statehood-supporting New Progressive Party — including Rosselló — argue statehood would help the territory, which filed for bankruptcy protection in May, escape its ongoing debt crisis and give residents more rights within the U.S. government. Currently, citizens pay federal taxes, the resident commissioner has no vote in Congress and the territory has no electoral votes in presidential elections.
The other two parties support either independence or a version of the current commonwealth status.
“Why would Puerto (Ricans) want to be second-class citizens? Being part of a union where you can’t vote is undemocratic,” Suarez said. “Its current status is unconstitutional. It’s un-American.”
But the lack of a united voice on statehood from Puerto Rico isn’t the only thing keeping Congress from taking action. The territory’s financial status also is big stumbling block, Barreto said.
“It’s a bizarre idea holding a plebiscite on any issue right now, when literally the island itself is in bankruptcy court,” Barreto said. “The government is spending literally millions on this. One could argue the funds could be better used.”
Puerto Rico also faces a “Medicaid cliff,” and without financial support, hundreds of thousands of its residents could lose health care coverage. The cost of keeping the territory away from the cliff’s edge is about $28.2 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The U.S. Justice Department had pledged to provide $2.5 million in funds for the plebiscite. But after a draft of the 2017 ballot was submitted for review, the department sent a letter to Rosselló in April denying the funding and requesting “current territorial status” be added as an option. Rosselló said the referendum would still take place June 11, and the ballot was amended to include this choice.
For some, the vote offers the best financial chance for the island, said Meléndez, who is from Puerto Rico and came to the United States in 1978. Puerto Rico owes at least $123 billion in debt and pension payments combined, and since 2007, it has lost 20 percent of its jobs and 10 percent of its total population.
“The sentiment among a large number of people is that it might not be the best time (for the referendum), but it is the best time, because statehood will help solve many of the challenges that Puerto Rico faces,” Meléndez said. “It doesn’t matter if the other party participates; what matters is that a majority vote for statehood, so in their own minds, they legitimize that option.”
Rosselló said as the most important issue in Puerto Rico, “we won’t rest until the colonial status question is solved.”
“My commitment is that I will make sure they know this is being ignored and they need to take action, and I will use the pulpit to make sure that everybody is aware of what’s going on,” Rosselló said. “I feel confident that statehood will prevail, and then it’s up to the leadership and the people of Puerto Rico to establish conditions so that Congress can act.”
Jessica Campisi: 609-477-0303, @jessiecampisi