Puerto Rican voters this week backed a ballot measure that endorses U.S. statehood. This is the first time that a majority of Puerto Ricans went with a pro-statehood ballot referendum after three previous tries in the last 45 years.
That type of landmark vote would appear to suggest that statehood is on the horizon, but a number of political and economic realities stand in the way.
President Barack Obama and members of Congress have said that Puerto Ricans would have to make their preference clear for statehood in order to move forward. In March of last year, the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status recommended that President Obama and Congress support "any fair, transparent, and swift effort that is consistent with and reflects the will of the people of Puerto Rico. If the process produces a clear result, Congress should act on it quickly with the President's support."
Yet, Tuesday's vote may be an illustration of a people who remain divided over the island's status rather than united around one option. Based on the first question of a two-part ballot, just more than half (54 percent) voted to change the island's status. In the second question, 61 percent said they favored statehood, while 33 percent voted for sovereign free association (more autonomy from the U.S.) and 5 percent backed independence.
The most telling result to some was that roughly 466,337 who voted on the first part that asked about changing the island's status didn't vote on the second part of the ballot measure that asked about their preferred status. Some observers chalked up the discrepancy to confusion over the language of the referendum, but others said it was a clear demonstration that Puerto Ricans remain undecided on how they would change the island's status.
"The ones who remained silent on the status question spoke volumes," said a Puerto Rican political insider, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Rocio Velez, a pro-statehood political analyst, pushed back on that assertion, saying that she's heard many Puerto Ricans on and off the island calling members of Congress to push for statehood in the wake of the vote.
"We can't really say that it wasn't the majority of the people," she said. "I think it's an example of democracy at its best."
Even if the numbers are taken at face value, the road ahead could remain difficult.
Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño lost reelection on Tuesday to Alejandro García Padilla, whose Popular Democratic Party wants the island commonwealth to maintain its current relationship with the United States. Puerto Rico will still have a statehood advocate representing it in Washington, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, but a split political leadership could complicate a sales pitch that argues the island is united around statehood.
Regardless, Pierluisi said Tuesday that he would present the result of the referendum to the Obama administration with the hopes of moving forward on statehood.
"The ball is now in Congress' court and Congress will have to react to this result," Pierluisi said, according to the Associated Press. "This is a clear result that says 'no' to the current status."