Analysis: The Puerto Rico Plebiscite That Wasn't

In fact, all that incoming governor García Padilla is obliged to do under the law is send a letter to Washington stating the results. It can be argued that even if Fortuño won, he would have faced difficulty explaining why statehood should be considered when the option won only a plurality and not an absolute majority (over 50%) of the votes.

It is conceivable that Pedro Pierluisi, the island's incumbent resident commissioner (non-voting member of Congress), who is not only pro-statehood but a member of the Democratic Party with ties to Obama, might be able to argue the case, but that seems dubious given the absence of power of his office. Pierlusi was running again as running mate to Fortuño (who is staunchly Republican). He was re-elected to Resident Commissioner. A recent paper published by Latino Decisions in anticipation of Tuesday's vote states that "lawmakers are not likely to accept the outcomes of a status plebiscite that was not authorized by Congress."

For his part García Padilla has already announced that he will hold a Constitutional Convention in Puerto Rico in 2014 and seek a new plebiscite that would be approved by Congress.

Still, the incoming governor would do well to address the dissatisfaction with the current status that has been expressed by a majority of Puerto Ricans. Certainly the trend over the last several years has been disenchantment with Commonwealth. But it remains to be seen what Statehood supporters really want.

While Fortuño became infamous for implementing hardline budget-cutting policies applauded by right-wing Republicans like Grover Norquist, he was also constantly seeking Federal funds from Washington, whether it was from the Stimulus or making sure Puerto Rico would be covered by Obamacare.

Given the tendency of many statehooders, including their last governor Pedro Roselló, to align themselves with the US Democratic Party, it seems they might be in search of not so much family values and cutting government jobs than equal rights and entitlements as US citizens. Now that the island's economy is in its sixth year of recession, the ambivalent status of Commonwealth doesn't seem enough to guarantee the island's future. It's this tricky equation that seems to best explain Fortuño's unexpected defeat and statehood's increasing popularity.

Of course Puerto Rico's desire for a stronger safety net through statehood is precisely what would be met with great opposition in the increasing cost-cutting atmosphere of the US Congress. In the end, the island's fate is entirely up to the deciding power of that legislative body, not its own.

Maybe what Puerto Ricans should be focused on is not statehood, commonwealth, or independence. It's self-determination, the real, unrestricted right to control its own destiny.

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