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Puerto Rico to become the 51st state?

By Kevin Milliken for La Prensa

Nov. 7, 2012: While the entire US-nation’s focus with the November general election seemed to be on who would win the presidency and which party would control which house of Congress, voters in Puerto Rico made two major decisions at the polls that could greatly affect the future of the Caribbean island territory.

First, voters ousted incumbent Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño after just one term. He will be replaced be Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party, which aligns itself with the Democratic Party in the U.S. Gov. Fortuño had supported GOP hopeful Mitt Romney for U.S. president.

That selection, though, seems to contradict a second vote in favor of seeking statehood for the island commonwealth. Puerto Rico held another in a series of plebiscites, a two-part ballot which allows voters to express their desire for the future of the island.

The first part asked all voters if they favor Puerto Rico’s current status as a U.S. territory. More than 900,000 voters, or 54 percent, responded “no” to the first question, saying they were not content with the current status.

All voters then had the opportunity to choose in the second question from three options: statehood, independence, or “sovereign free association,” a designation that would give more autonomy to the island of nearly four million people.

About 1.3 million voters cast their choice. Nearly 800,000, or 61 percent of those who expressed an opinion, chose statehood—the first time a majority was reached after three previous referendums on the issue over the past 45 years. Roughly 437,000 backed sovereign free association ELA Soberano (República Asociada/Associated Republic), a form of independence with some association to the U.S. Another 72,560 chose the option of independence.

Nearly 500,000, however, left that question blank as a form of protest against the plebiscite.

Gov. Fortuño is a strong backer of statehood. However, he won’t get to shepherd the effort forward. But he welcomed the results and said he was hopeful that Congress would take up the cause.

While the results may indicate what many Puerto Ricans want, statehood will not be possible without US Congressional approval, something that is not guaranteed. Similar referendums failed in 1967, 1993 and 1998. If approved, Puerto Rico would become the 51st state. No territory has achieved statehood in more than five decades.

Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock cited to CNN the leading factors were an economic downturn and shrinking population were the factors that contributed to the support for statehood. 58 percent of Puerto Ricans now live in the U.S. mainland.

“I think people just came to realize that the current relationship simply does not create the number of jobs that we need,” he said. “When you have a political status that scares away half of your population, it is time to reject that political status.”

On the flip side, some analysts say the views on statehood have not changed, despite the voting results.

“This isn’t to say that support for statehood hasn’t increased; it has,” Jorge Benitez, a political scientist at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, told CNN. “But the only thing we can decipher with certainty from the vote is that the people of Puerto Rico want a change to the current status. It isn’t clear what change we want, but we want change.”

According to Benitez, the preference of many voters is to consider a report by the Obama administration that lays out several non-colonial options before choosing an alternative status; the option is supported by the party that won the governorship, but it did not appear on the ballot. For his part, President Obama made an official visit to Puerto Rico last year, the first such visit by a president in 50 years.

While the plebiscite was never authorized by Congress and is in no way a binding resolution, incoming Governor García has already announced his intention to hold a constitutional convention and push for a new Congress-authorized plebiscite in 2014.

While residents of Puerto Rico are US-American citizens but can’t vote for President, the almost five million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 U.S. states have full voting rights. That may be enough to push a statehood effort forward with federal officials who just watched the Latino vote play a major role in President Obama’s re-election.

A decisive Latino-fueled victory for Obama already has caught the attention of Republican and conservative leaders stateside who seem to be striking a new tone on undocumented immigration.

Obama carried more than 70 percent of the Latino vote. After the election, Fox News and radio talk show host Sean Hannity has said his views on immigration have “evolved.”

“We’ve got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether. It’s simple, for me, to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here, you don't say you got to go home,” he said. “Because you know what—it just—it’s got to be resolved. The majority of people here—if some people have criminal records you can send ‘em home—but if people are here, law-abiding, participating, four years, their kids are born here: first, secure the border, pathway to citizenship, then it’s done. But you can't let the problem continue. It’s got to stop.”

Meanwhile, in an ABC interview, House Speaker John Boehner said he is “confident” the two parties can agree to a deal on immigration reform.

“This issue has been around far too long,” Boehner said. “A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the President, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”

For some, statehood for Puerto Rico would be a good first step in recognizing the impact Latinos are having on US-American politics and would reunite the split population between the Caribbean commonwealth and their stateside brethren.

Many other Latinos want the 5-decade-plus embargo against Cuba to cease—this and immigration reform would satisfy many Latinos.

Then comprehensive immigration reform, in one form or another, would be a logical next step to creating peace on an issue that has left Mexicans and others inviting targets for critics seeking political gain. But the conversations on both fronts are only beginning.


Copyright © 1989 to 2012 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 11/20/12 19:20:33 -0800.




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