To become a true US state, to choose independence or to maintain the status quo: Puerto Ricans on Sunday mulled their political future in a non-binding referendum many have vowed to boycott.
The Spanish-speaking US territory’s referendum proposes “the immediate decolonization of Puerto Rico,” just as the bankrupt island is drowning in US$70 billion in debt.
Regardless of the crisis, the referendum could not wait, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said, repeating over the past several days in interviews and on Twitter that “the moment to vote for the decolonization has arrived.”
Rossello, 38, came to power in January on the promise that he would work to end a long “colonial” relationship with the US and make the island the 51st state.
The question of status is “fundamental” to breaking free from economic turmoil, Puerto Rican Chief Economic Adviser Christian Sobrino said.
“It is because Puerto Rico is in an unequal relationship” with the US government that the bankrupt island’s finances are now under a largely US-appointed control board, he told reporters.
A former Spanish colony taken over by the US at the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rico has enjoyed broad political autonomy since 1952 as a commonwealth or “free associated state.”
As US citizens, often proudly so, Puerto Ricans can freely enter the US, but do not have the right to vote for US presidents or elect representatives to the US Congress, even though US lawmakers have the ultimate say over the territory’s affairs.
Many Puerto Ricans attribute the malaise plaguing the island to Washington’s power over them.
For decades the territory enjoyed a US federal tax exemption that attracted many US companies — but those breaks were ended in 2006, prompting many firms to leave the island. Beaten down by the loss in revenues and the global financial crisis, the island plunged into recession.
However, the territory found easy relief in US municipal bond markets, where investors could get attractive tax-exempt bonds that provided ready cash but sank the island deeper into debt.
The bubble ultimately popped and, unable to repay creditors, Puerto Rico on May 3 declared bankruptcy — the largest ever by a local US government.
US President Donald Trump has several times argued against bailing out the distant territory.
However, “public opinion is divided,” said Edwin Melendez, director of the Puerto Rican Studies Center at the City University of New York. “Half the population, or more, believes that nothing will happen.”
“The US government has no obligation to pay attention to the result,” he said, arguing that it will “lack legitimacy” if a significant part of the electorate abstains.
Lin Manuel-Miranda, the composer of Puerto Rican origin who penned the Broadway musical Hamilton, summed up in two rap verses the qualms of those who would rather not discus statehood as the economy plummets.
“The great debate over statehood has to wait,” he rapped. “That’s Rose and Jack on the Titanic asking, ‘When’s our next date?’”
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