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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.


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