Puerto Rico to hold statehood referendum amid disillusion

Puerto Rico will hold a nonbinding referendum in November to decide whether the island should become a U.S. state

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced on Saturday that she will hold a nonbinding referendum in November to decide whether Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state, a move that comes amid growing disillusion with the island’s U.S. territorial status.

For the first time in the island’s history, the referendum will ask a single, simple question: Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted as a U.S. state?

“Everything important in life carries some risk,” said former Puerto Rico governor Carlos Romero Barceló, a member of the Progressive New Party.

“Our people will have the opportunity once and for all to define our future,” Vázquez said. “It’s never too late to be treated as equals.”

U.S. Congress would have to accept the referendum results for it to move forward, and it has never acted on the island’s previous five referendums. The last one, held in 2017, was hit by a boycott and a low turnout that raised questions about the vote’s legitimacy. More than half a million people favored statehood in that referendum, followed by nearly 7,800 votes for free association/independence and more than 6,800 votes for the current territorial status. Voter turnout was just 23 percent. In the three referendums prior to 2017, no clear majority emerged, with voters sometimes almost evenly divided between statehood and the status quo.

Statehood would award Puerto Rico two senators and five representatives, but it's unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress would acknowledge the referendum because Puerto Rico tends to favor Democrats.

Roberto Prats, a former Puerto Rico senator and member of the Popular Democratic Party, said in a phone interview that the upcoming referendum will be an exercise in futility like the five previous ones.

“The only thing they’ve done is take away credibility from the statehood movement,” he said, adding that Puerto Rico has eroded the federal government’s trust with its decades of corruption and mismanagement, and that any referendum should first have support from U.S. Congress. “If we’re going to make a decision regarding our relationship with the U.S., the U.S. has to be involved in that discussion.”