Puerto Rican voters will determine this November the issue of whether this U.S. territory’s 4 million people want to become the 51st state, keep territorial status or become an independent country. (Photo by Molly J. Smith.)

By Joe Henke
Cronkite Borderlands Initiative

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Voters in Puerto Rico will not join their fellow American citizens in choosing a new president this November.

About This Story

This story is part of a project by the Cronkite Borderlands Initiative, which involved 18 student journalists from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University who traveled to Puerto Rico to report on immigration and the U.S. territory’s November plebiscite to determine if the island will move toward independence, statehood or stay as is.

Puerto Ricans are not allowed to vote in general presidential elections unless they become residents of a U.S. state.

Instead, the big item on ballots in Puerto Rico will be a referendum to decide the U.S. territory’s future.

In simple terms, the issue is whether Puerto Rico’s 4 million people want to become the 51st state, keep territorial status or become an independent country.

The referendum will appear as two questions. The first will ask voters if they want to change the island’s political status. The second will ask voters to pick one of three options: U.S. statehood, independence or “sovereign free association” — in which Puerto Rico would become an independent nation but have negotiated ties to the United States.

Any change in status would have to be approved by Congress.

Since the United States acquired Puerto Rico in 1898, following the Spanish-American war, the island has been a territory of the United States. Residents have been given more rights over time, but many Puerto Ricans want more.

A Civil Rights Issue

In Puerto Rico some view the status question as a civil rights issue that can best be solved through political action. That is why Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock became involved in politics as a 13-year-old when President Richard Nixon appointed him to be a delegate at a youth conference hosted by the White House.

Leonardo Gonzalez, a candidate in Aibonito’s mayoral elections, greets supporters at a caravana near Aibonito, Puerto Rico on March 17. Gonzalez won the March 18 elections with 70 percent of the vote. (Photo by Molly J. Smith.)

“I was growing up a pre-teen getting ready to be drafted into the Vietnam War,” McClintock said. “You really don’t like to be drafted in someone’s war whose elections you can’t participate in, and wars are declared in a Congress where you have no voting participation, and to be ruled by federal judges who are nominated by someone that you didn’t elect and confirmed by a legislative body in which you don’t participate.”

Puerto Ricans who support a change in status, whether independence or statehood, believe the island’s current relationship with the United States is one of disrespect and second class citizenship.

“The case for statehood isn’t one of additional benefits and special treatment,” said William-Jose Velez, executive president of the Puerto Rican Student Statehood Association. “It is one of equal treatment. We want the same benefits but the same responsibilities and rights.”

Two of Puerto Rico’s three main political parties agree that change is needed, but differ on what kind of change is best. The New Progressive Party (PNP) supports statehood. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), as its name suggests, supports independence. The Popular Democratic Party (PDP) supports commonwealth status — or no change in the current relationship with the United States.

Puerto Rico’s highest ranking elected official, Governor Luis Fortuño of the PNP, supports statehood. Fortuño helped get the status vote on November’s ballot. Fortuño’s name will also appear on the ballot as seeks another term as governor.

Political opponents accuse the governor of putting the status issue on the ballot in hopes of gaining support from pro-statehood voters.

Former Puerto Rican Governor Carlos Romero Barceló, also a member of the PNP, plays down the controversy.

“Is that criticism?” said Romero. “Isn’t that politics? People lose so much time criticizing nonsense, but that is what politics is all about. You get your people to vote however you can get them to vote. That’s the game.”

‘We have been disenfranchised for almost 100 Years’

Romero, who is no stranger to the status issue, disagrees with Fortuño’s administration for seeking statehood through a political process, which has been tried unsuccessfully before.

Romero has worked on the status situation since 1965. He was one of the leaders of Citizens for State 51, a non-partisan, pro-statehood organization. Shortly after that, he became one of the founding members of the New Progressive Party and was one of the main players in the 1968 status vote. Although the push for statehood failed, Romero’s career ascended. He went on to serve as the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan (1969-1977), then governor of the island (1977-1985), and finally Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner (1993-2001) — its non-voting representative in Congress.

Romero believes that the November vote focuses on the political status of the island when it should be focusing on civil rights.

“Our problem isn’t one of status,” Romero said. “It is one of discrimination against Hispanics, four million Hispanics. We are U.S. citizens, we are disenfranchised and we have been disenfranchised for almost 100 years. This is not an issue of asking for statehood; this is a matter of demanding equality in our citizenship. If the only way we can have it is by being a state, then that is Congress’ problem, not ours.”

Moving Beyond ‘None of the Above’

Puerto Rico has held similar votes three times before: in 1967, 1993 and 1998. While each raised important questions in the minds of Puerto Ricans, none of the previous votes changed Puerto Rico’s status.

In 1993 and 1998 statehood earned more than 46 percent of the vote, but failed to win the necessary majority. In 1998 the “None of the Above” ballot option won a bare majority.

Barceló disagreed with including the “None of the Above” option on the 1998 ballot. The vote took place just months after Hurricane Georges pummeled the island, doing more than $2 billion dollars in damage and destroying more than 33,000 homes according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Barceló claims people were dissatisfied by the response of the Puerto Rican government and then governor Pedro Rosselló González.

“They still hadn’t gotten paid to fix their roofs,” said Barceló. “Some homes were completely destroyed. Some were still living in refuge. I was against holding the referendum at that point. They held the referendum and ‘none of the above”‘ won, because people wanted to show some kind of resentment because they hadn’t received any help from the government, or sufficient help.”

On the 2012 ballot, “None of the Above,” won’t be an option.

Presidential Candidates on the Status Question

In Washington, D.C. the status situation hasn’t been formally discussed in Congress since 2010. But President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have both publicly taken positions supporting Puerto Rican self-determination.

During a campaign stop on the island in March, Mitt Romney addressed Puerto Ricans with Governor Fortuño standing next to him.

Supporters of Aibonito mayoral candidate Leonardo Gonzalez waived flags and played loud music during a rally for Gonzalez on March 17. Gonzalez is a member of the Popular Democratic Party, also known as the supporters of a commonwealth status for Puerto Rico. (Photo by Molly J. Smith.)

“I respect the right of Puerto Ricans to make their own decision with regards to statehood,” Romney said. “If they choose by a majority plus one person to become a state, I will help lead the efforts to provide the statehood that the citizens of Puerto Rico would seek.”

Obama made a four-hour visit to Puerto Rico on June 14, 2011, the first American president to do so in 50 years. During the visit, he said he would support “a clear decision” made by a majority of Puerto Ricans in the November election.

Secretary McClintock supports statehood and hears a mix of campaign rhetoric and a practical policy strategy in Romney and Obama’s words. He thinks both candidates want to avoid a mass exodus from the island that might be caused by a lack of support for statehood. While he understands the worry over a possible mass migration, McClintock thinks it is unfounded.

Unlike other mass movements to the United States, Puerto Ricans would not face any immigration hurdles. As American citizens Puerto Ricans can move freely within the United States and McClintock said they would re-settle much more easily than other groups, like the 100,000 Cubans who arrived after the Mariel boat lift in the 1980s.

“Then they [Cubans] were only arriving at the U.S. with the shirts on their backs,” McClintock said. “Here you are talking about American citizens moving legally and freely to the mainland with their life savings, with their professional licenses, with their diplomas from accredited universities. So they would be much more competitive than unemployed Mariels from Cuba.”

‘Spinning Our Wheels’

McClintock predicted two plausible outcomes in the November statehood election.

“The results are indecisive or the results are decisive in favor of statehood,” McClintock said. “19 out of 20 … want to stay in a relationship with the U.S.”

McClintock said an indecisive vote means that Puerto Ricans will continue to work at cross-purposes and the island won’t be able to move forward economically and socially.

He argues that a decisive vote in favor of statehood would put the island on the right track for the future.

“The moment we resolve the political status problem, then we will be spinning our wheels in the same direction,” McClintock said. “I have no doubt that will liberate a lot of intellectual capacity in Puerto Rico and allow us to move forward.”