There was a lot of excitement in the U.S. on Tuesday, Nov. 6. The presidential election was on everyone’s mind, and voting was all anyone could talk about. However, there were nearly 4 million American citizens who could not vote for the president on Tuesday. These people were voting on another matter entirely: whether their island of Puerto Rico should remain an unincorporated commonwealth of the United States or if it should become a new state or even a country.
Roughly 1.8 million Puerto Ricans voted on a referendum that asked two main questions. Firstly being whether or not they were happy with their current status as a commonwealth, which simply means a U.S. territory. Fifty-two percent of the voters said they wanted change. The second question asked what alternative citizens would desire in the event of a status change. For the second question, 61 percent said statehood, 33 percent said “sovereign free association” (separate from the U.S. but with close political, security, and economic relations to allow a slow transition into independence), and 6 percent chose independence.
Since it appears that the majority of voters desire statehood, there has been a lot of talk in the mainland media that it’s only a matter of time until Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state. A few similar referendums have been voted on in the past, but this is the first time in history that a majority has wanted to become a state. Americans took the news and ran with it; new flag designs with a 51st star have been floating around the Internet and popping up on social media sites.
However, the results of the referendum are not fully accurate. Nearly half a million voters left the second question completely blank. This means that in reality, a total of 45 percent of Puerto Rican voters actually expressed the desire for statehood. This is not a true majority. On top of that, Puerto Ricans voted to oust their pro-statehood governor, Luis Fortuño, after one term. He was one of the driving forces behind the movement toward statehood, but his replacement, Alejandro Garcia Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party, is perfectly fine with Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth.
Let’s imagine that Puerto Rico does become a state. What would this mean? First of all, they would lose their representation in the Miss Universe Pageant, which they have won three times. They would also no longer be recognized as a nation in the Olympics. Economically, the price of living for Puerto Ricans would rise. They would be subject to federal taxes, but this would help to develop the infrastructure of the state. Free trade with all U.S. allies would also become possible. Politically, Puerto Ricans would have full representation in Congress and the right to vote. Currently the one representative they have in Congress has a voice without a vote.
There is a good mix of pros and cons, and it seems as though almost half of the citizens are fine keeping things the way they are, since as a commonwealth they get the best of both worlds. Their status comes along with U.S. military protection and a lack of federal taxes. Some Puerto Ricans fear that their unique culture would be eroded if they were to merge with the United State, especially because the official language of the U.S. is English and Puerto Rico’s is Spanish. English is taught only as a foreign language in Puerto Ricans schools, and the switch to English would account for some major culture shock.
No matter what, the referendum is non-binding, meaning that Congress still has final say in the decision. It doesn’t seem likely that Puerto Rico will become our 51st state any time soon. President Obama said, “The status of Puerto Rico should be decided by the residents of Puerto Rico. IF the referendum indicates that there is a strong preference from the majority of the Puerto Rican people, I think that will influence how Congress approaches any actions that might be taken to address status changes.”