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Puerto Rico's governor has announced that the U.S. territory overwhelmingly chose statehood in a nonbinding referendum.
The vote was held amid a deep economic crisis. The problems have sparked an exodus of islanders. Most have moved to the U.S. mainland.
Nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood. About 7,600 went for free association/independence. Nearly 6,700 votes were for the current territorial status. These numbers were according to preliminary results.
Voter turnout was just 23 percent. That led opponents to question the validity of the vote. Several political parties had urged their supporters not to vote.
The U.S. Congress has final say in any changes to Puerto Rico's political status.
But that didn't stop Gov. Ricardo Rossello. He vowed to push ahead. His administration wants the island to become the 51st U.S. state. He declared that, "Puerto Rico voted for statehood." He said he would create a commission. It would ensure, he said, that Congress validate the referendum's results.
It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967. That was according to Carlos Vargas Ramos. He is an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. He teaches at Hunter College in New York.
He also said that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the last referendum. That was in 2012.
"Supporters of statehood did not seem enthusiastic as they were five years ago," he said.
Puerto Rico's main opposition party rejected the pro-statehood result.
"The scant participation...sends a clear message," said Anibal Jose Torres, a party member. "The people rejected it by boycotting an inconsequential event."
The referendum coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. But they are barred from voting in presidential elections. Puerto Rico has only one congressional representative. That individual has limited voting powers.
Among those hoping Puerto Rico will become a state is Jose Alvarez. He is a 61-year-old businessman.
"Now is the moment to do it," he said.
Many believe the island's territorial status has added to its 10-year economic recession. The recession has prompted nearly half a million Puerto Ricans to move. Most went to the U.S. mainland. The recession 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. It also 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. It was the fifth vote 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. They moved to find a lower cost of living or jobs. The island of Puerto Rico contains 3.4 million people. Puerto Rico struggles with a 12 percent unemployment rate.
Those who remain behind have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills. Food is 22 percent more costly than the U.S. mainland. Public services are 64 percent more costly.
Those who oppose statehood are concerned. They don't want the island to lose its cultural identity. They warn that Puerto Rico will struggle even more financially. That is 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," said Carlos Delegado. He is secretary of the opposition Popular Democratic Party. "Whatever we might receive in additional federal funds will be canceled 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.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is referendum questioned?
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