By Danica Coto The Associated Press
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans got the chance Sunday to tell the U.S. Congress whether they want to become the 51st state in a vote that took place on a U.S. territory mired in an economic crisis that has triggered an exodus of islanders to the mainland.
Congress has final say over whether to approve the outcome of the referendum that offers voters three choices: statehood, free association/independence or the current territorial status.
Statehood supporters were expected to dominate the vote because three parties that favour other options were boycotting, including the island’s main opposition party. According to early results still trickling in, more than 470,000 votes were cast for statehood, more than 7,000 for free association/independence and more than 6,000 for independence, with nearly half of polling centres reporting. The participation rate was nearly 23 per cent with roughly 2.2 million registered voters.
Among those hoping Puerto Rico will become a state is Jose Alvarez, a 61-year-old businessman.
“Now is the moment to do it,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of years working on a socioeconomic model that has not necessarily given us the answer.”
The referendum coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.
Many believe the island’s territorial status has contributed to its 10-year economic recession, which was largely sparked by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives.
Puerto Rico is exempt from the U.S. federal income tax, but it still pays Social Security and Medicare and local taxes and receives less federal funding than U.S. states.
Those inequalities and the ongoing crisis prompted 66-year-old Maria Quinones to vote for the first time in such a referendum, the fifth on Puerto Rico’s status.
“We have to vote because things are not going well,” she said. “If we were a state, we would have the same rights.”
Quinones said many of her relatives are among the nearly half a million Puerto Ricans who have moved to the U.S. mainland in the past decade to find a more affordable cost of living or jobs as the island of 3.4 million people struggles with a 12 per cent unemployment rate.
Those who remain behind have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 per cent more expensive than the U.S. mainland and public services are 64 per cent more expensive.
David Aldarondo, a 31-year-old law student from Fishkill, New York, has lived in Puerto Rico for nearly a decade and said he believes independence is the best option.
“It would be rough,” he acknowledged. “Eventually, maybe not in my lifetime, but we could become a great nation.”
Those who oppose statehood worry the island will lose its cultural identity and warn that Puerto Rico will struggle even more financially because it will be forced to pay millions of dollars in federal taxes.
“The cost of statehood on the pocketbook of every citizen, every business, every industry will be devastating,” Carlos Delegado, secretary of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, told The Associated Press. “Whatever we might receive in additional federal funds will be cancelled by the amount of taxes the island will have to pay.”
His party also has noted that the U.S. Justice Department has not backed the referendum.
A department spokesman told the AP that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot’s language. Federal officials in April rejected an original version, in part because it did not offer the territory’s current status as an option. The administration of Gov. Ricardo Rossello added it and sent the ballot back for review, but the department said it needed more time and asked that the vote be postponed, which it wasn’t.
No clear majority emerged in the first three referendums on status, with voters almost evenly divided between statehood and the status quo. During the last referendum in 2012, 54 per cent said they wanted a status change. Sixty-one per cent who answered a second question said they favoured statehood, but nearly half a million voters left that question blank, leading many to claim the results weren’t legitimate.
Some statehood supporters on Sunday expressed dismay that certain voting centres appeared empty.
“We are worse off than I thought, in the sense that we don’t give a damn what happens to this island,” said Jose Miranda, a retired TV and radio producer who lived 30 years in the U.S. mainland and is returning because he believes life is better over there.