Puerto Rican Government Approves Referendum on Political Status

Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló approved a bill on February 3 that authorizes a referendum on the island’s political status as a U.S. territory. The referendum will take place on June 11 and will ask Puerto Ricans to choose between statehood, independence, and free association.

Puerto Rico’s political status has been a topic of discussion since 1898 when the island transitioned from a Spanish colony to an American territory after the Spanish-American War. In 1917, the US government granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans born on the island. Then in 1952, the government of Puerto Rico created its own commonwealth constitution, which established the island’s current status as an unincorporated dependent U.S. territory.

Historically, four separate referendums have attempted to resolve the territory’s political status. This upcoming referendum will be the first to omit the option of maintaining current commonwealth status. It seeks to only emphasize statehood or independence and free association. If the latter were to win, another referendum will be held on October 8 in which Puerto Ricans will choose between full independence and sovereignty or negotiating their  American citizenship with the U.S. in a free association.

Despite the push to resolve the long-lasting debate, the referendum’s funding serves as an issue of concern. The government relies on $2.5 million that the U.S. Congress designated for a Puerto Rican referendum in 2014. However, in order to access this money, acting-Attorney General Dana Boente must give authorization. Considering the contrast between the policy priorities of the Trump and Obama administrations, getting access to this money could be a complicated task. Although the government claims that money is not an issue, it is evident that, with the territory’s $70 billion debt crisis, there is not currently enough government funding for the $5 million referendum.

News of the referendum sparked a variety of polarized opinions. The New Progressive Party, a staunch advocate for statehood that is currently in power, celebrated the referendum and seeks to make history. If Puerto Rico becomes the fifty-first state, the island would receive an additional $10 billion in federal funds, and the government will be able to file for bankruptcy.

However, Governor Ricardo Rosselló continues to frame the referendum as much more than a political question. “Colonialism is not an option for Puerto Rico,” he states. “It’s a civil rights issue … The time will come in which the United States has to respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.”

Should statehood win in June, federal laws with special loopholes for Puerto Rico will be automatically amended or eliminated. Complete equality between Puerto Rican citizens and those of the mainland U.S. will not take full effect until 2025, though.

Opponents of the referendum claim that it is unfairly biased towards statehood and diminishes the option of independence. According to El Nuevo Dia, David Bernier, the president of the Popular Democratic Party, which wants to maintain the status quo, states that “this referendum will divide the country in the middle of a deep economic crisis.” Others even claim that the government has no real control over the winning result and that the U.S. will not react to the referendum.

In a world that has supposedly surpassed the era of colonialism, Puerto Ricans are still fighting for equal rights. Regardless of their viewpoint, it is time to seek first-class citizenship, whether that be as U.S. Americans or independent Puerto Ricans.