Puerto Rico votes on status—again
SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico was taking to the polls Sunday in a final countdown for a status referendum, the voting of which closes at 3 p.m.—only hours remaining to commence a process that supporters of statehood hope will end a century of United States colonial rule. The referendum is a campaign promise by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who made good on his word to hold a status plebiscite during his first year in office.
Much as his father, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who held a referendum on status in 1993 during his first term in office, the sitting governor has made the promise of bringing statehood to Puerto Rico a cornerstone of his administration.
Puerto Rico has held four status plebiscites dating back to 1967, when the current commonwealth option won with 60.4% of the vote. The first of the next two status sweepstakes saw commonwealth winning over statehood by a 48.6% to 46.3% margin in 1993. The “None of the Above” option prevailed in 1998 in what amounted to a protest vote by the people in repudiation of then-Gov. Pedro Rosselló’s decision to hold the contest despite the passage of Hurricane Georges, which left the island devastated.
The most recent status contest, a two-tier process that called for a “yes” or “no” vote on whether to keep the current status, saw the “no” vote prevail with 53.9%. The ballot included a second question on status preferences, which saw the statehood option gaining 61.6% to the commonwealth’s 33.34%.
Despite what seemed an overwhelming majority, the referendum’s result was not taken seriously in U.S. Congress because 498,604 people cast blank ballots. Those opposing the statehood movement used the math—454,798 for sovereign commonwealth together with 498,604 blank votes and the 74,895 votes cast for independence—to claim a total of more votes than the 834,191 cast for statehood.
Congressional inaction on the 2012 result raises the potential for another Yogi Berra moment of “It’s déjà vu all over again,” as the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the Popular Democratic Party have already announced they will be boycotting the referendum.
“Many representatives privately feel they are crazy to believe that this referendum will deliver concrete results, “ a source on the Hill tied to the GOP told Caribbean Business. “I think that if 100 percent of those eligible voters favored the statehood option, no one in U.S. Congress would pay attention on this one. If on the other hand everyone voted for independence, it would be granted tomorrow. You would have a bill moving so fast through Congress that no one would know what hit them.”
The GOP source said the principle issue driving resistance to Puerto Rico in Congress is a lack of assimilation and integration into the nation. “The view that Gov. Rosselló has that the U.S. Congress would admit a state into the union that handles its business in Spanish, and that their first language would not be English is not correct. If Puerto Rico were able to hit an inflection point whereby it could integrate then statehood is possible. But that is not the case right now.”
Some foot soldiers for Puerto Rico’s statehood have been hard at work trying to change that perception. “We have spent the past five years educating people on Capitol Hill pertaining to Puerto Rico’s issues,” said Anabelle Guillen, an adviser on federal affairs for Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and is the executive director for Igualdad: Futuro Seguro, a Puerto Rico-based super PAC (political action committee) advocating for the island’s issues across the United States. “We have focused on many issues, but our most recent trip was tied to status. We attended meetings between Gov. Rosselló, Resident Commissioner Jennifer González, Rivera Schatz and [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, Speaker [Paul] Ryan, [U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman] Rob Bishop among others.”
Igualdad took its show to the White House, where they met with Justin Clark, who heads the intergovernmental affairs office that deals with Puerto Rico. “We were able to explain how being a territory affects Puerto Rico in terms of the Medicaid cap and the difference between what the island receives as compared to the rest of the states,” Guillen added. “Now, after Promesa and all of the work done by many on the Hill, there is a difference because the Puerto Rico issue is on the table. There is a difference from six years ago.”
Guillen let on that several members of Congress will support Sunday’s decision—whatever the outcome. Among those who have expressed they will back the result include Reps. José Serrano (D-NY), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Rob Bishop (R-UT), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Darren Soto (R-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Still, the members of Igualdad are well aware that an immovable Congress poses a significant challenge.
Guillen believes the crusade for statehood needs to go beyond congress to the districts where constituents reside. “It is an issue that is bigger than the Hill. Our job is to take the message to other people,” Guillen said. “We will visit the districts, we will visit the states, reaching out to constituents in important states who can put pressure on representatives to act. We can’t continue to just walk up and down the halls of Congress.”
Gov. Rosselló is expected to visit Washington, D.C., and New York this week. “Puerto Rico’s public relations firm, Marshall, Nappi & Schulz, has been pitching that he is going to be available to talk about the results on Monday, Tuesday and maybe even on Wednesday,” said a congressional source who chose to remain unnamed. The governor is banking on a robust turnout by the New Progressive Party to give him the moral standing to convince members of Congress that a majority of Puerto Ricans want statehood now.