“Rossello and his supporters continue to traffic in a misconception, a scenario that promises Puerto Rican people that statehood is indeed an immediate possibility and that, once achieved, it would cure all that ails the island. The ultimate bailout.”
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a freelance journalist and media consultant with expertise in the Hispanic market. In the following viewpoint, Ramirez de Arellano contends that the Rosello administration’s June 11, 2017, plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s statehood was misguided for two main reasons. First, according to the author, spending $5 million in the middle of a debt crisis for a plebiscite that most Puerto Ricans didn’t care about was unwarranted. Secondly, Ramirez de Arellano argues that Rosello’s administration is ignoring the fact that, given Puerto Rico’s territorial status—technically a US colony whose powers are very limited—and the current unsympathetic government of President Donald Trump, the campaign for statehood at this time is a lost cause.
As you read, consider the following questions:
- As explained by Ramirez de Arellano, how is Puerto Rico’s current status as an unincorporated territory of the United States a big obstacle to any referendum that would bring the island into statehood?
- Does de Arellano believe that statehood is the ultimate answer to Puerto Rico’s economic problems? Why or why not?
- According to the article, only 23 percent of Puerto Rico’s population showed up to vote in June 11. In your opinion, how should the Puerto Rican government interpret this? Using the Puerto Rican situation as a starting point, share your thoughts on how you think government leaders could listen better to their constituents.
Puerto Ricans went to the polls last Sunday in yet another attempt to find a solution to the dilemma that has plagued the island for more than two centuries of colonial rule: should the US territory put all its eggs in one basket and seek to become the country’s 51st state?
The 11 June plebiscite status vote was the fifth since 1967. All of them were nonbinding referendums that sought to find a permanent solution to the status of the island—a US colony since 1898. None of them pushed the needle forward at all. It is doubtful that this latest incarnation will.
Notwithstanding, and ignoring that insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, the plebiscite was pushed through—like a square peg in a round hole—by the pro-statehood administration of Governor Ricardo Rossello and statehood leaders of his New Progressive party (NPP).
They ignored the stipulations put forward by Congress and the Department of Justice (DoJ), and the fact that many on the island believed the timing was just not right, especially in light of the unsympathetic government of Donald Trump.
They pushed it through even after the DoJ did not approve the language of the nonbinding vote and the federal dollars destined for this plebiscite never materialized.
For this, the Rossello government spent more than $5m of local money in the middle of a staggering debt crisis.
Puerto Rico is struggling under the worst economic and fiscal crisis of the island’s history, brought about by a massive $70bn debt, which prompted the establishment of a fiscal control board, and a looming budget gap of more than $20bn, which include public sector bills and money owed to pension funds.
To make matters worse, more than 12% unemployment has fueled a population decline that exceeds the 1950s’ “great migration”, stripping the island of its human capital.
A Lack of Voter Interest
Rossello and his supporters continue to traffic in a misconception, a scenario that promises Puerto Rican people that statehood is indeed an immediate possibility and that, once achieved, it would cure all that ails the island. The ultimate bailout.
What Rossello and the NPP statehooders were desperately seeking was an overwhelming support for statehood on the day. This so Congress, in their eyes, would be forced to pay attention. They did not get it.
Voter turnout was just 23%. Almost half a million votes were cast for statehood, about 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for the current territorial status, according to preliminary results. The latter led opponents to question the validity of a vote that several political parties had urged their supporters to boycott.
This also means that close to 80% of the voters either were too apathetic or simply didn’t care for the process at all. Many went to the beach or church instead of the polls. Most people in Puerto Rico are more worried about how they will pay their bills, than the status.
But the boycott and low voter turnout also means that Puerto Rico squandered an opportunity to send a real message to Congress and the world that the present colonial status is obsolete and gave the narrative over to the statehooders. That is a propaganda victory for the NPP.
Puerto Rico’s Fate in US Hands
Notwithstanding, no amount of creative spinning and number massaging can hide the central truth that, in the end, this was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967. This was not, by any stretch, a blowout support for statehood.
Just as an example, in the 2012 plebiscite statehood won by almost 70% of the vote, yet the Senate energy and natural resources committee argued that this majority vote did not represent the majority of Puerto Rico because of the overwhelming number of abstentions. The committee argued that the vote was inconclusive at best, and did not represent the majority of Puerto Ricans at worst.
What does the Rossello government think they will say now, in light of the low turnout?
And, most important of all: Uncle Sam is less than interested. The answer from Capitol Hill after the nonbinding vote was that the process will have to work its way out through Congress.
(Let’s be realistic here: why would the Republicans want what most likely would be five more Democrats in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate? Just saying.)
This lays bare the truth in black and white. Puerto Rico is a colony and it has little, if any, jurisdiction over its own people. The outcome of this or any plebiscite ultimately has to be acted on by the US, regardless of what islanders would prefer. Here’s to waiting for Godot, yet one more time.