Puerto Ricans vote on statehood vs. free association/independence. The first option would make the U.S. territory the 51st state of the Union, offering it possible relief from catastrophic debt. The second would end islanders’ escapes to the U.S. mainland from conditions widely regarded as unbearable.
A binding vote will be held in October if voters choose free association/independence, but the United States Congress will have the last word on the fate of the territory and its 3.5 million citizens. Roughly half a million people have left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland in the past decade. The Huffington Post describes the flight as the largest exodus in 50 years, noting that it has resulted in a 9 per cent drop in the island’s population, which has further eroded its tax base at a critical time. In its drive to meet its debt obligations, the government has cut spending by laying-off public employees and closing many schools and health facilities. It has also raised the sales tax from 7 per cent to 11.5 per cent. The publication adds that the relentless austerity has stunted the island’s economy, while cutting back on vital social services. The island became a possession of the United States after the Spanish-American War, and the subsequent Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. The Act did not grant statehood. Puerto Rico is reeling under almost US $70 billion in public debt and the demands of a federal control board demanding more austerity measures. Associated Press notes that if the U.S. Congress were to approve Puerto Rico as the 51st state, the island could receive an additional $10 billion in federal funds a year and its government agencies and municipalities would be able to file for bankruptcy. A referendum on Nov 6, 2012, the fourth, yielded clear results for the first time: 61 per cent voted for statehood. The territory’s previous government did not follow up on the vote. The pro-statehood new government, elected in 2016, has revived the push to settle the status of the island.
Date written/update: 2017-02-17