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Should we get married or continue living together? Puerto Rico's never-ending status question

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Allow me to resume the analogy of a human couple. Puerto Rico's Independence Party advocates separation and, eventually, divorce -- with alimony. The New Progressive Party (PNP) has consistently courted Congress with hopes of everlasting marriage. The other major party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), prefers a reformulation of the current domestic arrangement: sort of living together but sleeping in different rooms.

Two matters make the status-centric nature of the island's main parties misleading -- actually, dishonest. First, Puerto Rico cannot singlehandedly determine its final political status. Congress has the final word. Thus, insular politicians are promising something they cannot deliver. They have been spinning their wheels for decades on what is essentially a non-issue.

Second, the Puerto Rican electorate is far from making up its mind about a final status option. Unlike Alaska, where 83.5% of voters approved of statehood in 1958, and Hawaii, where over 93% cast ballots to become the 50th state in 1959, Puerto Rican support for statehood has hovered under 50%. If Puerto Rico wants to propose, it needs to convince itself first.

Congress is equally of two minds, split along strict partisan lines. Democrats enthusiastically support statehood for Puerto Rico because it would translate into two additional Democratic senators and five Democratic U.S. representatives. For that reason, Republicans vigorously oppose its admission.

If at least one member of the couple were to make up its mind, it could woo the other into permanent union. As it stands, neither side is ready to pop the question, or answer yes if proposed to.

This month's referendum was the PNP's fifth attempt since 1993 to demonstrate majority support for statehood, the logic being that if you play the lottery long enough, you are bound to win eventually.

 

Pro-statehood politicians have worded plebiscites and referenda in a variety of ways, like a lawyer in court who asks a witness different versions of the same question until she elicits the answer she wants.

The first and second times (1967 and 1993), voters had three options: Commonwealth, independence and statehood. On both occasions, the Commonwealth formula won and statehood came in second. Independence trailed a distant third.

In 1998, the menu included two additional options: free association (a sort of enhanced Commonwealth) and "none of the above." Rejecting the plebiscite's official definition of Commonwealth, the PPD advised its members to vote "none of the above." That alternative received a slim majority of 50.3%. Statehood got 46.5%.

In 2012, Puerto Ricans were asked the question in yet another way. It was a two-part consultation: first, "Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?" Fifty-four percent voted no. Voters were also given the opportunity to select among statehood, free association and independence.

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