While Puerto Rico is unable to vote in presidential elections, 65 percent of the US island territory’s four million citizens on Tuesday voted in favor of becoming the 51st US state – an action that President Obama said he supports.
While Americans voted in the general election, Puerto Ricans went to the polls to choose statehood or the status quo before answering a follow-up question to specify their will. Nearly 54 percent sought to change the territory’s 114-year relationship with the US. Only four percent of the islanders voted for complete independence, while 31 percent hoped for sovereign free association and 65 percent favored joining the US.
This election marks the first time that a majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood in a nonbinding referendum. Almost 80 percent of eligible Puerto Rican voters took part in the referendum, which was the fourth in 45 years. Both Obama and Mitt Romney said they supported such a referendum, with the president making a promise to respect the will of the people.
“I believe the country should become a 51st state because the US has influenced our country completely and we are Americanized completely 100 percent, there’s no differentiation,” a young woman told the German news source, Deutsche Welle.
“Puerto Rico has to be a state. There is no other option,” 25-year-old Jerome Lefebre of San Juan told the Associated Press. “We’re doing ok, but we could do better. We would receive more benefits, a lot more financial help.”
More Puerto Ricans currently live in the US than in Puerto Rico. They are allowed to serve in the US military, but still do not have the right to vote in US presidential elections. Puerto Rico has no representation in the Senate, and has a congressional representative who does not have voting rights.
If Puerto Rico were to become the 51stUS state, its residents would be subject to federal taxes, which they are currently exempt from.
But Puerto Ricans cannot vote themselves into statehood. The decision lies with the US Congress, and some predict that statehood still lies in the very distant future. Puerto Ricans on Tuesday also voted for their congressional representative in Washington. Partial election results show Alejandro Garcia Padillo in the lead, who supports the island’s status quo. Pro-statehood Gov. Luis Fortuno was lagging in the votes as of Wednesday morning.
“I can assure you we have rescued Puerto Rico,” Garcia said. “This is a lesson to those who think that the well-being of Puerto Ricans should be subjected to ideologies.”
The cultural and language differences between the US and Puerto Rico could also prevent any sort of immediate action. Fernando Martin, executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) told Deutsche Welle that he doubts the island will gain statehood anytime soon.
“The fact is that Puerto Rico is an accident of history,” he said. “The US would want the official language of universal understanding to be English, they’d not want it to be a burden to the national treasury and it would have to be substantial unanimity, more than 50 percent. With those three criteria it’ll be almost impossible for Puerto Rico to achieve it in 60 or 70 years!”
But the fact that the majority of Puerto Ricans expressed their desire to join the US – the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world – is one step closer to a serious consideration of the issue.
“It’s the first round of a long fight,” Martin said..