In the midst of an unprecedented economic and fiscal crisis, Puerto Rico held its fifth status referendum in 50 years last Sunday. Producing a 97 percent victory in favor of statehood, New Progressive Party (PNP) Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has made it clear that he will lose no time leveraging the mandate to push Congress to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state. Despite this, Rosselló will surely exclude from his sales pitch any reference to the successful electoral boycott organized and supported by practically every movement, party, and sector other than the PNP.
Though Puerto Rican voters traditionally churn out en masse for electoral events, only about a quarter of voters participated in Rosselló’s referendum. Turnout rates for previous votes on the matter in 2012, 1998, 1993 and 1967 boasted participation rates of 78 percent, 71 percent, 74 percent, and 60 percent, respectively. The boycott, in effect, was thus successful. Though turnout tends to be low in the U.S., such organized boycotts are staples of Latin American politics. International headlines on the matter are devastating for the PNP, shadowing the victory with reference to high absenteeism.
Every PNP administration since 1992 has dished out a failed referendum on the statehood question. Rossello’s father, who was also governor, sponsored two. Though the votes have failed to provide a majority for the statehood option (or a convincing majority in the case of the 2012 referendum, which was itself flooded with protested blank ballots), the electoral events have worked well in rallying the PNP’s political base and party machinery. Nevertheless, none of these votes have ever been supported, sponsored, or recognized by Congress.
This vote was supposed to be different, as President Barack Obama allocated $2.5 million back in 2013 for the purpose of carrying out a federally-sanctioned status referendum. The allocation, in turn, required that the ballot options be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Nevertheless, upon Rosselló submitting his first ballot draft, the department rejected it and titled it as “ambiguous and potentially misleading”, in reference to the ballot’s clear bias towards statehood. The Puerto Rican legislature amended the ballot per the department’s request but when the latter requested time to review the changes, Rosselló decided to proceed with the vote utilizing state funds. Since then, the Department of Justice has made it clear that the ballot is so far unauthorized.
The PNP’s desperation does not end there. When the Puerto Rican Independence Party decided to boycott the referendum, the only pro-independence activist who was willing to act as a spokesperson for the ballot option happened to be on the Rosselló administration’s payroll. Similarly, statehood supporters began plastering city streets and building walls with posters featuring the colors of opposition parties, inviting their followers to vote. The PNP, in effect, propped up ballot options other than their own in order to grant legitimacy to their ailing referendum process.
The statehood movement has attempted to justify their referendum, extensively citing numerous congresspersons’ calls to action for Puerto Rican voters to participate. Representatives of the likes of Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), Don Young (R-Alaska), and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) have each publicly supported the process. Nevertheless, each of these individuals are recipients of generous campaign contributions from deep-pocket statehood donors.
Rosselló’s $7.5 million referendum comes at a time where his government is closing up almost 200 schools in order to save $7.7 million in operating expenses. Last April, Rosselló prematurely pulled the plug on an independent audit that was being carried out on the island’s $73 billion debt, citing that the $2 million that it would cost to audit the debt was wasteful. At the end of the day, Rosselló’s insistence will go down in history as yet another failed status referendum that pushes Puerto Rico no closer to resolving its status woes. What could have been the very first vote with congressional blessings has in effect become a toothless rallying-cry for pro-statehood militants.
Republished from The Hill