Puerto Rico pushes for statehood amid debt, poverty

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A report by Nick Brown and Tracy Rucinski for Canada’s Globe and Mail.

Puerto Rico’s Governor on Monday said the island’s vote in favour of becoming a U.S. state, despite low voter turnout and widespread boycotts, was “a fair and open” process that U.S. Congress should act upon.

An island-wide referendum on Sunday favoured statehood in a 97-per-cent landslide, though voter turnout reached just 23 per cent as opponents of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s push to become a state boycotted the vote.

The non-binding plebiscite is not expected to sway the U.S. Congress, which would have to agree to make Puerto Rico a state.

Currently a U.S. territory, the island is struggling with $70-billion (U.S.) in debt and a 45-per-cent poverty rate, and is not viewed as a priority in Washington.

Mr. Rossello, who campaigned on a push for statehood, said in a telephone interview with Reuters that he will go to the U.S. capital this week to urge federal lawmakers to begin the process of admitting Puerto Rico into the union.

“We will make sure this becomes an issue,” Mr. Rossello said.

The vote comes at a critical time for Puerto Rico, whose hazy status – which dates to its 1898 acquisition by the United States from Spain – has contributed to its ongoing economic crisis.

Last month, the island filed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Its woes make statehood even more urgent, Mr. Rossello said. “Statehood brings stability, allows us to have fewer rule-changes from Congress, provides resources to our people,” he said.

Sunday’s referendum, which cost Puerto Rico between $5-million and $7-million, according to government estimates, was the island’s fifth since 1967 – and the third in which pro-statehood sentiments triumphed, though none have moved Congress to act.

“If the U.S. is going to go to Venezuela and Cuba and Afghanistan and push democracy abroad, they’ve got to do the same” with their own territories, he said.

But Puerto Ricans are skeptical the island’s status will change. “This has all been a waste of time,” said taxi driver Felix Salasarar, 54, adding that federal lawmakers will “look at the voter turnout and say, ‘where’s the will of the people?’”

Working against the Governor may be a perception in Washington that Sunday’s vote was not fair.

The U.S. Department of Justice in April called on Mr. Rossello to change ballot language that initially did not give voters an option to remain a U.S. territory.

Mr. Rossello told Reuters he made that decision because the territory option – which Mr. Rossello equates to colonialism – already lost in a previous status referendum, in 2012, making this year’s vote a choice between statehood and independence.

The Justice department viewed the language as politically unfair to millions of Puerto Ricans who favour territory status, prompting Mr. Rossello to add the territory option. But the Justice department never reviewed or approved the new language.

To be sure, Sunday’s results do not reflect the true nature of Puerto Ricans’ views on statehood, which are fairly evenly divided between those who favour it and those who do not, based upon historical election results.

Statehooder Mr. Rossello, for example, won his own election with just 42 per cent of the vote.

But that, the Governor said, is how democracy works: “Everybody knows that those who go through the voting process have a louder voice than those who don’t,” he said.

Carolina Santos, a single working mother struggling to make her mortgage payments, said bankrupt Puerto Rico has more important things to worry about than a status vote.

“Maybe we should focus more on fixing our financial problems and our schools,” she said.

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