The Meaningless Vote for Puerto Rican Statehood

After a long election cycle, the results of the Puerto Rican polls are in. The Partido Nuevo Progresista — New Progressive Party — is celebrating two major victories: their candidate being elected and Puerto Ricans voting “Yes” for Puerto Rico to be annexed to the Union as a State — the latter with around 52% of the votes. Pro-statehood politicians argue that this is an obvious majority and the island should be “admitted immediately” to the United States of America. The day after the election, The New York Times published a piece titled “Make Puerto Rico a State Now” by Christina D. Ponsa-Kraus, a constitutional law scholar who writes frequently about the political status of Puerto Rico. The opinion piece suggests the message from the plebiscite is clear — Puerto Ricans want statehood — and Congress should therefore act upon it. However, as a Puerto Rican, I can assure you that the matter is not that simple. 

First, the referendum was nonbinding, which may have affected the results and turnout of the election. If people decided not to participate because they thought the vote to be inconsequential, the ‘majority’ captured by the vote would not be legitimate. Additionally, over 37,000 people decided to cast their ballots blank, which in Puerto Rico is a popular act of protest. Ultimately, just over 50% of the voters that showed up actually voted “Yes” — approximately 600,000 people out of Puerto Rico’s total population of 3 million. 

The validity of the vote may be further questioned due to the irregularities in scrutiny that are being reported by various parties. More than 170 briefcases with untallied ballots were found a week after the election, each containing anywhere from three to 500 ballots. Given the nonbinding nature of the referendum, the tiny fraction of the population that voted for statehood, and the possibility of large numbers of untallied votes, this result is essentially meaningless and undemocratic. Nonetheless, this does not stop pro-statehood politicians from using it as a prop. 

The topic of statehood in Puerto Rico serves a political agenda: the support for the New Progressive Party. The leaders of the PNP use the promise of “prosperity” and “federal funds” through statehood to gather votes for their candidates. This has been the case for decades, and it was the purpose of this plebiscite. And the one in 2017. And the one in 2012. Both were boycotted by the people and promptly dismissed by Congress. However, this mirage of statehood is even more crucial for the party now because this last election witnessed its lowest voter count in history: just above 32%, or around 400,000 votes. 

Furthermore, the debate over Puerto Rican statehood is similar to that over D.C. statehood: Democrats favor it and Republicans oppose it. The reasons behind this are the same: Puerto Rico, like D.C., would likely be a blue state. There are arguments against this claim, and they have their merits. However, we do know voter turnout for the 2016 Democratic Caucus in the island was more than twice that of the Republican Primary. Puerto Rico would most likely grant the Democrats two more senators and a couple more electoral votes. This puts the island in the middle of a political debate between two parties thirsty for power. While the Republicans’ motives seem desperate — they wish to hold on to the political balance they have in the country — it would be immoral for Democrats to use Puerto Rico as a means to gain a majority. Especially when Puerto Ricans have so much to lose.

After all, Puerto Ricans are known for being a deeply patriotic people. This is not surprising after many years of oppression by the United States; for a while, it was illegal to own a Puerto Rican flag. It is not a coincidence that the most common argument against statehood is that we would not be able to participate in the Olympics under our own flag. This is such a deal breaker that pro-statehood politicians are forced to promise that this is not the case, and that we might be treated differently —  like if Alaska had its own Olympic team. 

Puerto Rican nationalists refuse to let go of our national identity. To never hear the Puerto Rican Anthem “La Borinqueña” again when a Boricua wins a medal is reason enough to hold on to the little autonomy we have. Even the Miss Universe pageant is a reason to repeal annexation. The contest is especially popular in Puerto Rico because we are the country with the third-most wins. It is a matter of honor and pride. To lose our international presence as Puerto Ricans is unthinkable to those of us who are against statehood.

Accordingly, the main difference between D.C. and Puerto Rico is that Washingtonians are undeniably Americans who overwhelmingly want statehood and would not lose a unique, national identity if admitted. This is not the case with Puerto Ricans. There even exists a part of the population who want complete independence from the United States. While this group is currently a minority, the Puerto Rican Independence Party received almost 14% of the vote during this election, a figure they had not seen for decades. Whether this signals a growing support for independence is not clear, but one thing is sure: The debate is far from being settled.

This is not just about politics. It is about identity, culture and nationality. A matter so important requires consensus because of the irreversible nature of its consequences. We need a transparent process of self-determination, not a hasty referendum to serve a political party. Until a legitimate majority of the people of Puerto Rico can agree on what is best for the Island, the United States Congress should not make this decision about our land. Right now, Puerto Rican statehood would irreversibly deny the wish of many Puerto Ricans to be just that: Boricuas.

Aunque nacieran en la luna.


Image Credit: US and Puerto Rican flag on a building in Puerto Rico”by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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