By Madelyn Colon
CTLatinoNews.com Political Columnist
The status of Puerto Rico has been a topic of heated, emotional debates in many families, among friends and in political circles for more than 100 years. It may be time, however, for Puerto Ricans to tone down our emotions and think in practical terms.
Becoming the 51st state would mean tremendous political power for Puerto Ricans on the island and mainland. Based on its population, if Puerto Rico became a state, it would mean two Senators, five Representatives and possibly seven electoral votes. Imagine what this could mean on an island with almost an 80 percent voter turnout rate?
This past November, as U.S. Latinos exercised and demonstrated their political muscle, more than one million voters in Puerto Rico responded to two questions in a non-binding referendum. In the first question, they rejected their political status as a political territory of the United States. In the second, they chose statehood as the preferred “non-territorial” option. They also requested that Congress begin federal legislation to make the transition to statehood. For the first time in Puerto Rican history, and numerous referendums on the subject, when asked directly, more Puerto Ricans made it clear they want to become a state rather than remain a Commonwealth. How realistic is the possibility of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state in the Union?
Critics of the referendum, the pro-commonwealth party, the Partido Popular Democrato ( PPD), actively organized against it. They objected to almost everything about how it came to be and instructed pro-commonwealth supporters to leave the second question on a preferred status option blank to register their opposition. Now they claim the wording of the question was the problem since 472,000 voters did not vote on the second question at all.
Despite this, 824,195 or 61.11 percent voted for statehood. A hybrid option called a “Sovereign Free Associated State” that would lead to independence but ongoing negotiated ties with the U.S. was also on the ballot and received 33.34 percent support. It seems silly to discuss the third option – independence – when only 5 percent of Puerto Ricans voted this way.
The referendum was not held in a vacuum. Governor Luis Fortuno, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the Mayor of San Juan, the Puerto Rican Legislature and the Speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives introduced the legislation and all approved the referendum in 2011.
At the federal level, The US Presidents’ Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, has paved the way to consider how to address Puerto Rico’s political status since it was first approved by President Clinton in 2000. The scope of the Task Force has been expanded through a series of executive orders under Presidents Bush and Obama. The Obama administration added specific policy and administrative reforms to develop much closer collaborations with Puerto Rico in education, health care , public safety and economic development. The task force is required to update the political status of Puerto Rico every two years.
Despite the results of the referendum and the mandate that Congress should now act on Puerto Rico’s political status, enormous hurdles are ahead. For one, Governor Fortuno has launched a recall of the vote that elected Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who favors the current commonwealth status. If the recall confirms Garcia Padilla as Puerto Rico’s next Governor, Pierluisi, who won another four-year re-election as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives (non-voting), may have a tough job fielding the results of the referendum through Congress.
This much I know. There is idealism and then there is political power. On the mainland, Latino political power is no longer in doubt. Add Puerto Rico as a state with congressional representation and the ability to vote in Presidential elections and the possibilities are endless.
Instead of looking back lets look ahead at the enormous opportunities in the Statehood debate.
By Madelyn Colon