Puerto Rico Should Not Hold More Status Referendums
By Javier Piñeiro
During this year’s General Election, the New Progressive Party (NPP) decided to hold a referendum with the question: “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State, Yes or No?” Official reports show that 50.8 percent of Puerto Ricans voted “Yes” in the referendum, when accounting for blank ballots. As approved by the NPP administration, this referendum is officially called the “Final Definition of Puerto Rico’s Status.” While the name is seemingly a stunt to legitimize the referendum, this name holds some truth: This one should be the last status referendum for Puerto Rico.
This election marks the sixth status referendum in Puerto Rico’s history and the fifth one held with the NPP in control of the archipelago’s government. The NPP has held three referendums within the last decade: 2012, 2017 and 2020, which has trivialized this mechanism and proved it wasteful.
The most recent referendum cost over $3.5 million, increasing the total referendum expenditures to $14 million in one decade. These funds are assigned as special disbursements that run separate from the rolling $30 million budget of Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission and are paid in full by Puerto Rican taxpayer dollars.
A binding referendum is a mechanism supported by the United Nations Charter, which establishes guidelines for nations to hold and abide by a binding referendum’s results. As part of these guidelines, the legislative power in charge must set forth the procedures that follow each resulting scenario. Given Puerto Rico’s colonial status, a binding referendum would not be self-executing unless ratified through federal legislation as part of an agreed-upon process with the U.S. Congress.
Ideally, for those who still believe in referendums, a binding decision would have received the federal government’s endorsement, commitment and active oversight. In turn, none of the six referendums in Puerto Rico’s history has been binding, but relatively ineffective and counterproductive for all Puerto Ricans, even statehood supporters.
Undoubtedly, the implications of a binding referendum would completely transform the political, governmental and socioeconomic structures of Puerto Rico. As such, the results of a binding referendum must represent the absolute majority of Puerto Ricans, with at least 75 percent of the people voting in favor of a definitive alternative. This threshold was followed in 1951’s referendum to approve Act 600, which won 76.5 percent of the vote.
In turn, past results in status referendums have been closely split, with low participation rates and thousands of blank ballots as a form of dissent. Simply put, these results do not represent the absolute majority of Puerto Rican voters and have further discouraged any congressional support for a binding referendum.
The right path must begin with an extensive educational campaign to help Puerto Ricans understand each status alternative’s implications and reach a consensus on a self-determination process. This process should follow a constitutional status assembly, which would provide a democratic representation of Puerto Ricans in a new constitutional draft. This is the central mechanism in a recent proposal by the Puerto Rico Bar Association, which runs an internal committee to study Puerto Rico’s constitutional development.
A constitutional assembly is the only consensus-building alternative locally, as it counts on the support of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, Proyecto Dignidad and Popular Democratic Party (or 67 percent of voters in the 2020 elections). Such consensus would provide avenues for coalition-building and broader engagement from Puerto Ricans to support the constitutional status assembly’s success.
Moreover, the constitutional assembly has sparked growing sentiment on the archipelago and Washington to take binding action. Last term, Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia M. Velázquez, both New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent, introduced a bill that would advance a constitutional assembly—the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act. While incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) already stated that the 2020 referendum “did not achieve clear consensus,” the constitutional assembly appears to bring together long-standing Democrats and young progressives behind a binding solution.
Historically, the federal government has been unwilling to recognize the Puerto Rican people’s power over the archipelago’s political status and our right to self-determination. Now, the Democratic majority in Congress may have laid the groundwork for the Puerto Rican government to unfold a long-term commitment in Washington actively. All that is needed from the Democratic majority is to agree on federal funding and binding action for Puerto Rico’s self-determination. This is the time to engage in a new conversation about a constitutional status assembly that defines the outlook of Puerto Rico’s political future.
—Raised in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, Javier Piñeiro earned a bachelor’s degree in business with a double major in accounting and economics and a certificate in business communication from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Piñeiro advocates for socioeconomic justice and human rights in Puerto Rico and abroad. Since 2020, he has been involved in the Diaspora for Self-Determination Campaign.