THE STATE OF PUERTO RICO

In light of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, we are publishing a series of articles about global elections and transitions taking place in 2012. Join us as we explore a diverse set of countries and the repercussions associated with leadership change by reading our “Week of Elections” series!

By David Dannecker
Staff Writer

On November 6th, US citizens will be voting in the 2012 Presidential Election. That is, except for the US citizens who reside in Puerto Rico, whose status as an unincorporated territory doesn’t grant its residents the right to vote in federal elections. However, this election day Puerto Ricans will be voting in a referendum that has a possibility of changing that. For the first time since 1998, Puerto Rico is holding a plebiscite to see if the Puerto Rican public wants to change its status in relation to the United States. There are four potential outcomes to these referendums: statehood, independence, free association with the United States (more on that later), or sticking with the status quo. If the statehood initiative were to succeed, Puerto Rico would become the first new state to join the union in over 50 years.

The history of Puerto Rico’s connection to the United States dates back to the Spanish-American War. Since 1898, Puerto Rico has been a territory under the control of the United States. While it has had largely autonomous civilian government since 1900, and has held democratic gubernatorial elections since 1948, it has remained a territory with commonwealth status. Even its constitution had to be approved and ratified by the United States government when the commonwealth status was first established in 1952. Three times in the last fifty years, Puerto Rico has held referendums on statehood; first in 1967, and twice in the 1990s. The question of Puerto Rico’s status is so important to the Puerto Rican political landscape that instead of conforming to the familiar American party model of Democrats and Republicans, political parties in Puerto Rico divide along differing stances on the status issue. For example, the NPP (New Progressive Party) favors statehood, while the PIP (Puerto Rican Independence Party) supports independence. The current 2012 referendum marks the first time in 14 years that the status issue has been on the ballot.

The referendum will ask Puerto Rican voters two questions. The first will be whether Puerto Rico’s status as a territory should change. The second will ask how it should change; statehood, independence, or sovereign free nation with continued ties to the United States. If the answer to the first question is yes, the answer to the second question with the majority of the vote will be considered. Of course, any decision to change status would also have to be approved and taken up by the United States Congress. A vote for statehood could send Puerto Rico down the path to becoming the 51st state. Voting for independence could set Puerto Rico towards self determination, as has been seen in recent years in countries such as Montenegro and South Sudan.

A Federation of American Scientists (FAS) report points out, “none of the previous status votes is exactly comparable to the one authorized for 2012. The votes
are also generally not comparable to each other due to varying question wording and order.” The option to maintain its current status has won out every time, though not always with a majority vote. The FAS report goes on to mention that the statehood option has been the second-place finisher each time the issue has been on the ballot. This time around public opinion appears to be trending in a similar fashion.

Latest polling shows a slim 51% majority voting to keep the status of Puerto Rico as it is, as recently as early October. When asked about their choices for the second question in the referendum, public opinion showed a scant 4% in favor of independence, while 44% and 42% prefer statehood and sovereign free nation respectively. These polls certainly suggest that this year’s referendum could go the same way as the previous three, but 51% is a slight majority and anything could happen on Election Day. Additionally, a poll taken in May showed that 45% of the Puerto Rican public was unsure of what the different options actually meant. The closer we get to the election, the more information is available, and that will presumably have an impact on how the public votes on the referendum. Indeed, the May poll showed only 36% support for statehood, indicating that from May to October there has been an 8% shift in favor of statehood.

While this may not yet be enough the swing the tide of the referendum, it is most likely good news for current Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuña, who strongly supports the statehood option for Puerto Rico. In an interview in March of this year, Gov. Fortuña stated that he firmly believes that Puerto Ricans will vote to support statehood, pointing to the high number of Puerto Ricans who currently serve in the United States military, yet have not been given the right to vote for their commander-in-chief. Gov. Fortuña has endorsed Mitt Romney for the presidential race, and while he appears to be narrowly losing his own campaign for reelection, his name has been thrown around as a potential cabinet appointee should Romney win his campaign for the presidency.

The United Nations has long supported self-determination for non-independent territories around the world, a designation that still includes Puerto Rico, despite its long established self-government. The United Nations’ Special Committee on Decolonization recently held meetings to push the United States to “expedite a process that would allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence”. The Special Committee has pointed to the fact that there is broad international support for the idea of Puerto Rican independence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Some of the committee members argued that Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status is a sham, only giving the appearance of self-government. This argument has some degree of validity, since Puerto Rico is fundamentally under the authority of Congress, yet continues to lack real representation in Congress. Presumably, either the independence option or statehood option would satisfy the requests of the Special Committee, since one would allow full self government and separation from the United States, while the other would result in full representation during elections and in the legislature.

The most recent instance of Congress itself addressing the question of Puerto Rico’s status was in 2010, when the House passed a resolution authorizing a referendum similar to the one happening this year. The resolution was not passed in the Senate, but Puerto Rico initiated its own referendum anyway, which did not require action or approval by Congress. Whatever the results of the 2012 referendum turn out to be, they will prompt action from Congress along whichever path received support and approval by voters. This referendum, while technically non-binding, could very well set Puerto Rico down the path to real change. Even while most of American public and media attention focuses on the Presidential campaign, it is interesting to realize that there is also a chance that the United States could grow from 50 to 51, adding a new state for the first time in more than a generation.

Photo by Oquendo

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