Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Why the plebiscite was a disaster

By on June 16, 2017


Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s statehood plebiscite was a disaster.

Let’s look at the numbers. On June 2, 2017, the El Nuevo Día front page reported that according to its polls, 71 percent of registered voters would vote in the June 11th plebiscite. Only 22.9 percent voted. This was shocking; no one expected it to be so low. In the 2012 plebiscite, 78.2 percent voted.

The purpose of the plebiscite was to send a message to the U.S. Congress, the President, and American public opinion: Puerto Rico wants statehood. This was indeed the headline in much of the U.S. and international press: that statehood got 97 percent of the vote. But the media also highlighted that only 23 percent voted in an island famous for high voter participation. The headline in the New York Times began with the very low turnout.

Obviously the plebiscite communicated to the U.S. a confusing message. If previous plebiscites showed that Puerto Ricans are divided between statehood and Commonwealth, why did 97 percent favor statehood in this one? Indeed, if almost all Puerto Ricans want statehood, why did only 22.9 percent vote?

But to see how low the participation was, let’s look at another number. About 503,000 voted for statehood. This was 332,000 fewer than in the 2012 plebiscite. There were 1,362,000 fewer voters (including the 515,000 blank ballots) than in 2012. This in spite of the fact that Rosselló and the NPP carried out a massive pro-statehood, get-out-the-vote campaign leading to the plebiscite.

How to explain this?

A failure in Rosselló’s political leadership. He won the governorship in 2016 with only 42 percent of the vote. According to the June 1st El Nuevo Día’s poll, he has a 39 percent approval rating. Despite consistently positive media since the elections, he has lost ground.

The opposition parties’ plebiscite boycott worked. This was also surprising. The Popular Democratic Party has never been as weak as it is now. Its leadership was divided in terms of whether to participate in the plebiscite. The fact that only 6,821 voted under the “current territorial status” column proved that the boycott worked much better than expected.

There is no consensus for statehood in Puerto Rico. The pro-statehood New Progressive Party has won seven of the last 13 elections. It has elected a pro-statehood resident commissioner to Congress in nine elections. This was the fourth status plebiscite it has carried out, each one increasingly designed to produce a pro-statehood vote.

Again, the fact that statehood got 332,000 fewer votes than in 2012 proves that the persistent pro-statehood campaign in the past four decades has not produced a consensus for statehood.

Why, then, did Rosselló and the NPP make such a bad mistake with such bad consequences?

A good question. I think frustration. The sense that having won the general elections so many times, having tried so hard for so long, the reality is that Puerto Rico is not closer to statehood; indeed, it may be receding. So there is a growing sense of desperation.

First, this was supposed to be the first of the five status plebiscites that had U.S. government approval. Yet Rosselló and the NPP decided to go ahead after the U.S. Justice Department disapproved the initial ballot – mainly because it omitted the option of Commonwealth status, and falsely declared that only statehood guarantees U.S. citizenship. After the NPP amended the ballot – although still without the name “Commonwealth” – the Justice Department did not give its approval. So if the purpose of the plebiscite was to promote statehood in the U.S. government, why proceed with a plebiscite without U.S. approval?

Rosselló and the NPP’s essential campaign went beyond the usual argument that the flaws in Commonwealth make it a “colonial status” responsible for the island’s ills. Now the argument was that Commonwealth status never existed. And to prove it, the NPP Legislature eliminated the July 25th holiday, for 65 years the day Puerto Rico has celebrated the creation of Commonwealth status.

The great Spanish philosopher and journalist José Ortega y Gasset wrote in his “The Revolt of the Masses”: “History is the reality of man. He has no other. In it he has become what he is.”  What is the point of rewriting Puerto Rican history? Isn’t this a sign of desperation?

I have long believed two things about Puerto Rico’s political status.

One that status plebiscites are useless. If there were an overwhelming desire for statehood in Puerto Rico then it makes sense to have a free, democratic plebiscite that would confirm to the U.S. and the world what exists. If the reality is that there is no consensus in Puerto Rico as to status, what is the point of plebiscites that will confirm that there is no consensus?

The other thing is that if there were a consensus in favor of statehood, a plebiscite would certainly have Congress, once again, take the result seriously. But in the end, it will, once again, come up against economic reality. That making this island a state, imposing federal taxes on an economy with a per capita income one-third that of the U.S., half that of the poorest state, won’t work.

Statehood for Puerto Rico is economically impossible.

And if it was when Puerto Rico had sustained economic growth, how could it be possible now that it is economically bankrupt?

But this plebiscite was more than useless. More than a tragic waste of time and money in a Puerto Rico sinking economically.

It was, for Rosselló and the NPP, a disastrous mistake.

A.W. Maldonado was a San Juan Star reporter and columnist, executive editor of El Mundo, and editor and publisher of El Reportero.


  1. Chris

    June 16, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    *yawn* more babble from the colonialists who don’t even have the balls to defend their colony.

    • Josean A. Diaz

      June 16, 2017 at 10:32 pm

      Negative. If any group of cowards in Puerto Rico needs balls, those are the sore loser Statehooder who, for the fourth time in a row, were afraid to hold a Statehood Yes or No referendum.

      • Chris

        June 17, 2017 at 8:36 pm

        How about Independence yes or no? If yes gets less than 10% of the vote all independenistas have to move to Cuba and renounce US citizenship.

    • Josean A. Diaz

      June 16, 2017 at 10:55 pm

      Wait, what? If you call the Commonwealth a colony, why do you accuse Commonwealthers of not having the balls to defend the colony, when that is exactly what they are and have been doing for 65 years? We have demonstrated for the fifth consecutive time that we have an excess of “balls” to defend what you call the Commonwealth. I think you screwed up that Spanish translation in your mind.

      Speaking about “balls”, ff there’s a group of cowards in Puerto Rico who need to grow a pair, that’s the sore loser Statehooders who, for the fourth time in a row, were afraid to hold a Statehood Yes or No referendum.

      And….. speaking about colonies, if you claim Puerto Rico is a colony, then you are accusing the United States of owning it, just like they used to own slaves in the 18th Century. Why would anyone then, who believes the United States is still a colonizing empire holding Puerto Rico by its proverbial balls, lack the dignity of wanting to annex themselves to their colonial power instead of fighting for freedom? You are like the 18th Century slave who wished her owner climbed into her bed every night to play with her.

      • Chris

        June 17, 2017 at 8:30 pm

        Populares can’t even define what the mythical “commonwealth” even means. There is no such thing as “commonwealth”, it’s a make believe option. At least statehood is a real, valid option that actually exists.

  2. Chris

    June 16, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Also, the “Puerto Rico can’t handle Federal income taxes, we must remain a colony!!!!!!” argument is flawed. Almost half of mainland Americans (47%) do not pay Federal income taxes, why would it be any different in a state of Puerto Rico?

    Lastly, democracy belongs to those who participate. Independence and the colony (“current territorial status”) were right there on the ballot next to statehood. If the defenders of the colony and the independenistas didn’t care enough to vote for their option well then they they clearly don’t care enough to oppose statehood. Tough shit *shrugs*

  3. rtryon

    June 17, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    Some wonderful people failed to get a ticket for sailing on the Titanic on its maiden voyage. The U.S. looked that good too for Puertoricans wanting to sail first class too. With a $20 trillion national debt in the U.S. and little reason to buy into more debt relief for a PR State, why would mainlanders want P.R.? All past territories became states when the could afford it.

    Perhaps its time for all PR parties to ask for an honorable release from its being a U.S. possession with a divorce that adds the puny PR debt to the much bigger one?

    • Chris

      June 17, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      Puerto Ricans don’t want to become independent any more than someone living in Wyoming or Maine. I don’t understand why this is so hard for people to grasp.

  4. Chris

    June 17, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    Exactly! Many members of Congress are elected with well under 50% voter participation … especially during midterms and special elections.

  5. Dennis Myers

    June 19, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    “falsely declared that only statehood guarantees U.S. citizenship” ??

    What other status would prevent a future congress from revoking citizenship?

  6. JQ, Esq.

    June 20, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Dude…..Who was excluded.
    All options were on the ballot. You excluded yourselves with a dumb boycott, and all sorts of weird exhortations to hit the beaches instead of the polls…..

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