Puerto Rico's Questionable Vote for Statehood

By Miguel Perez

November 27, 2012 6 min read

At first glance, it seemed like a totally different story, especially given the superficial way in which the American news media tend to cover Latin America, even in a part of Latin America that also is part of the United States.

The way it was initially reported, the people of Puerto Rico appeared to have made a decisive and historic shift away from their current "Commonwealth" relationship with the United States and in favor of turning the Caribbean island into the 51st state of the American union.

Unless you were following the island's Nov. 6 election returns via cyberspace and directly from Puerto Rico's news media, on the mainland you were led to believe that, with 61 percent of a referendum vote for statehood, Puerto Ricans had placed huge pressure on the U.S. Congress to deal with Puerto Rico's colonial status once and for all.

We saw pro-statehood Puerto Ricans celebrating in the streets of San Juan and telling us that, for the first time in 45 years, the island had clearly chosen to become a state. They came off as if they had a mandate!

But there was nothing clear about the results of this referendum. Unfortunately, what they sent to Washington was a bunch of mixed signals that will give U.S. politicians a new wealth of excuses to keep ignoring our unique, undemocratic and often unfair relationship with Puerto Rico and its people.

Although the referendum was non-binding, which means that Congress can choose to ignore it anyway, a decisive vote for statehood, with a pro-statehood governor in office, could have made a huge impact in Washington.

But that's not happening. In spite of the initial misleading headlines based on a superficial reading of the referendum results, 61 percent doesn't mean that a majority of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood.

It means that in political math, sometimes numbers can be very deceiving.

Unlike past plebiscites, when Puerto Ricans were asked to choose between statehood, commonwealth or independence, and when they chose three times to remain a U.S. commonwealth, this time the current commonwealth status wasn't even an option!

This latest plebiscite — organized, orchestrated and manipulated by the governing pro-statehood New Progressive Party — consisted of two questions designed to favor the statehood option. And it got the desired results, thanks to semantics and fussy math.

First, the voters were asked whether they agreed with the island's current status as a U.S. commonwealth, which was curiously described on the ballot as Puerto Rico's "current territorial condition" — as if it was an illness that needed to be cured. And by a 54 to 46 percent margin, the voters went along with the loaded question and rejected their current status.

But the second question was even more loaded, crafted in such a way that you knew, even before the election, that it was bound for controversy.

Titled "Non-Territorial Options," the second question was a multiple choice: (A) Statehood, (B) a new commonwealth arrangement called Sovereign Free Associated State or (C) Independence. And that's where statehood got 61 percent of the vote. Another 33 percent favored a revised, more independent, version of the commonwealth and 6 percent voted for independence.

But that's the breakdown for the people who responded to the second question. It doesn't take into account some 500,000 voters who, apparently in protest for being denied the current commonwealth option, decided to leave that question blank.

The headlines told us that Puerto Ricans had chosen statehood, but if you count those who abstained on the second question, support for statehood goes down to 45 percent, and 55 percent actually went for options other than statehood.

Go figure!

As if that wasn't enough to bring the statehood movement back down to reality, their so-called "mandate" dissolves even faster when you consider that in the same election, Puerto Ricans booted out of office most of the people who had promoted statehood and had vowed to take that fight to Washington.

If 61 percent of Puerto Ricans had actually voted for statehood, why did they send the pro-statehood New Progressive Party packing? Why did they boot out the pro-statehood government of Gov. Luis Fortuna? Why did they give control of both chambers of the legislature to the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party?

The contradictions didn't make sense, until the 61 percent became 45 percent and we all realized there were no contradictions. Puerto Ricans are not ready to welcome statehood with a mandate, which is what they would need to convince a reluctant Congress to allow they island to fully join the union.

If and when they have that mandate, Puerto Ricans will still have a huge battle to fight in Washington, where statehood is bound to face stiff opposition, especially from Republicans. Let's face it: The GOP would rightfully fear that the island would become a blue state, that it would send mostly Democrats to fill two Senate and six House seats, and that once some 4 million Puerto Ricans are eligible to vote for president, a large majority — like other U.S. Latinos — would favor the Democratic Party.

In fact, for Puerto Rico to become a state, the stars have to line up with nearly impossible accuracy. On the mainland, Democrats would need to control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. On the island, a referendum, without loaded questions and reasonable options, would have to show a clear mandate for statehood. And the Puerto Rican people would have to find a pro-statehood governor they actually like.

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Miguel Perez
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