Puerto Ricans will head to the polls on June 11th to determine if they want their island to become a state, a vote which could be the start of a long uphill battle.
This is the fifth referendum of its kind in Puerto Rico’s history, with the previous one being held in 2012. The 2017 referendum offers voters three options; Statehood, Independence/Free association or Current Territorial Status, which would keep Puerto Rico an unincorporated territory of the United States.
Originally a Spanish colony, Puerto Rico became an American territory following the Spanish-American war of 1898. The United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris at the war’s conclusion, which ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the Americans.
As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are considered natural-born citizens, free to move to the mainland and travel as they please;. However, though it is governed by the U.S. Congress, as a territory Puerto Rico does not have a vote in Congress, nor can its citizens vote in U.S. presidential elections.
This is one of the major issues for Governor Ricardo Rosselló, elected to lead Puerto Rico back in November. He sees statehood as a civil rights issue, giving Puerto Ricans the ability to participate in the U.S. democratic process.
“One of the reasons I’m so proud to be an American citizen is that America represents democracy. And it’s hard to fulfill that vision when you still have a colonial territory,” Rosselló said in an interview with WLRN of Miami.
But equal voting and legislative rights aren’t the only issues driving this new referendum.
Many Puerto Ricans, including Rosselló, are banking on statehood to alleviate Puerto Rico’s financial woes. Rossello made statehood a central focus of his governorship campaign last year.
Puerto Rico has been locked in recession since 2006, preventing it from accruing the funds to pay off the island’s creditors.
The island defaulted on a $58 million bond payment in August 2015, and in May 2017 it sought bankruptcy relief in federal court, the first time in U.S. history that a state or territory has done so.
The total debt stands at roughly $123 billion, including $74 billion in bond payments and $49 billion in pensions.
The crisis has hit Puerto Rico’s public services, hospitals, and schools where it hurts, and caused the murder rate to spike nearly four times to that of the U.S. It’s also caused a tenth of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people to leave for the mainland in hopes of better fortunes.
Roselló and his allies believe statehood would up the appeal for businesses to move to the island, thereby allowing more wealth to flow into the economy. Statehood would also mean $20 billion a year in federal funds for programs like Medicaid and Social Security.
The problem for Rosselló is Congress, which has the final say on Puerto Rico’s status, regardless of the vote’s outcome. The referendum is non-binding, so nothing legally compels Congress to do anything at all.
This leads directly into another obstacle. Since Republicans currently control Congress, they are concerned the State of Puerto Rico would give Democrats an edge in future elections, and they aren’t keen to shell out extra funds to the island either.
Puerto Rico’s citizens may or may not have to wait a long time for statehood. Regardless of the vote on June 11, the island’s journey is just beginning and will likely be one of adversity for some time.
William Hadden is a contributor at Politicsay. He graduated from Belmont University with a degree in Journalism with a minor in Audio Video Production. William writes on American domestic issues, as well as international political news.