SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced on Saturday that she will hold a nonbinding referendum in November to decide whether Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state, a move that comes amid growing disillusion with the island’s U.S. territorial status.
For the first time in the island’s history, the referendum will ask a single, simple question: Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted as a U.S. state?
It’s an answer that requires approval from U.S. Congress and a question that outraged the island’s small group of independence supporters and members of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party, which supports the status quo. But it’s a gamble that members of the governor’s pro-statehood party are confident will pay off given that Puerto Rico has struggled to obtain federal funds for hurricanes Irma and Maria, a string of recent strong earthquakes and the coronavirus pandemic amid growing complaints that the island does not receive fair and equal treatment.
“Everything important in life carries some risk,” said former Puerto Rico governor Carlos Romero Barceló, a member of the Progressive New Party.
Previous referendums have presented voters with more than one question or various options, including independence or upholding the current territorial status, but none have been so direct as the one scheduled to be held during the Nov. 3 general elections.
“Our people will have the opportunity once and for all to define our future,” Vázquez said. “It’s never too late to be treated as equals.”
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. And while the island is exempt from the U.S. federal income tax, it still pays Social Security and Medicare and local taxes and receives less federal funding than U.S. states. Many believe the island’s territorial status has contributed to its struggle to recover from the hurricanes and earthquakes, as well as worsened its economic crisis, largely caused by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives.
U.S. Congress would have to accept the referendum results for it to move forward, and it has never acted on the island’s previous five referendums. The last one, held in 2017, was hit by a boycott and a low turnout that raised questions about the vote’s legitimacy. More than half a million people favored statehood in that referendum, followed by nearly 7,800 votes for free association/independence and more than 6,800 votes for the current territorial status. Voter turnout was just 23 percent. In the three referendums prior to 2017, no clear majority emerged, with voters sometimes almost evenly divided between statehood and the status quo.
Statehood would award Puerto Rico two senators and five representatives, but it's unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress would acknowledge the referendum because Puerto Rico tends to favor Democrats.
Roberto Prats, a former Puerto Rico senator and member of the Popular Democratic Party, said in a phone interview that the upcoming referendum will be an exercise in futility like the five previous ones.
“The only thing they’ve done is take away credibility from the statehood movement,” he said, adding that Puerto Rico has eroded the federal government’s trust with its decades of corruption and mismanagement, and that any referendum should first have support from U.S. Congress. “If we’re going to make a decision regarding our relationship with the U.S., the U.S. has to be involved in that discussion.”