Will Puerto Rico Become 51st US State?

Since Puerto Rico became a self-governing, unincorporated territory of the United States in 1952, the topic of the island’s political status has been a contentious one. On Tuesday November 6, as Americans were voting for their choice of Presidential candidate, Puerto Ricans were asked to vote in a non-binding referendum on two separate, but related issues. Firstly, voters were asked whether they agreed that Puerto Rico should continue with its current territorial status, and secondly, they were asked to indicate which of three alternative options they would prefer – statehood; independence; or status as a sovereign nation in free association with the United States.

The initial results indicated that 54 percent of voters were in favor of statehood, which advocates of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state of the United States hailed as progress toward this goal. A closer look at the results reveals that 54 percent were expressing their dissatisfaction with the current government by indicating on the first part of the referendum that they do not agree that Puerto Rico should continue with its current territorial status. When it came to the second part of the vote – as to which alternative they would prefer – 470,032 voters left the section blank. Of those who voted on this question 61.13 percent (805,155) of voters chose statehood, 33.32 percent (438,896) of voters chose free association, and 5.54 percent (72,978) of voters chose independence.

While some chose not to vote for an alternative type of government, of those who did exercise their right to vote, the majority chose statehood. However, if it is assumed that those who left the second part of the referendum black were anti-statehood, then the pro-statehood vote would fall to less than 50 percent.

This has led many to question whether the majority of Puerto Ricans do, in fact, want to become the 51st state of the United States. Further clouding the issue is the fact that voters chose to oust Governor Luis Fortuna and other pro-statehood leaders, and vote in pro-commonwealth Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party. According to an article in Puerto Rico’s popular newspaper El Nuevo Día in February, Padilla and several other pro-commonwealth leaders had recommended voting ‘yes’ to continuing with the island’s territorial status, and had endorsed leaving the second question blank.

Even if it is accepted that the majority of voters want statehood, there is still a long road ahead as the proposal must be approved by US Congress. Non-voting Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico to the United States Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, has made known his intention to introduce legislation in US Congress to admit Puerto Rico to the Union, in a move which he has reportedly described as “defend(ing) the people’s decision”.