Puerto Rico’s Failed Referendum
Over the weekend, Puerto Ricans went to the polls for the fifth time ever to vote in a referendum on the island’s future status. Once again, the results are inconclusive and the legitimacy of the result is in dispute.
At first glance, it appeared overwhelming: 97 percent of voters voted “yes” for statehood. But there’s a hitch. In a territory where voter turnout is usually around 80 percent, only 23 percent participated in Sunday’s referendum. An official boycott organized by the anti-statehood parties has robbed the vote of any real legitimacy.
Public support for statehood has been trending up for some time in Puerto Rico, and today stands at majority or near-majority support. Continuation of territorial status is the main alternative that also has substantial support, with outright independence a distant third. Governor Ricky Rosselló, of the pro-statehood party, was recently elected. But Puerto Rican voters have become jaded about the endless referenda that never produce any results for statehood. They were particularly cynical about this one.
Digging Out of the Island’s Insolvency Crises
Puerto Rico is in the midst of a fiscal insolvency crisis, undermined by years of profligate accumulation of debt by its government. Gov. Rossello’s pitch for statehood largely centered around the better deal they could get under federal bankruptcy law as a state, instead of as a territory.
In fact, it technically wouldn’t even be bankruptcy, since a state Puerto Rico would have the sovereign power to simply default on its debts by its own fiat. Hence this is a tactic theoretically possible under the Constitution, but more commonly seen in failed banana republics than by American states.
But adding a star onto stars and stripes so that Puerto Rico can stop paying its creditors is hardly an inspiring or positive message for such a momentous decision as entering the Union.
That’s why in addition to outright opponents of statehood, the numbers indicate that a substantial minority of pro-statehood voters also stayed at home. It reeked of a cynical political stunt and an insincere solution, another show referendum that would go nowhere and produce no action in Congress.
Gov. Rossello and the legislature will instead have to make the tough choices to actually balance the Commonwealth’s books and satisfy the terms of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico. Created through an act of Congress in 2016, and controlled by presidential appointees, this board has essentially taken the island’s government into receivership. That has imposed a much harsher abrogation of local government than could ever happen to a state.
The question of Puerto Rico’s future status and possible statehood is an important one. It’s long overdue for a resolution. Congress should draft and pass legislation establishing a firm timetable for a real binding referendum, with Congress’s pre-commitment to abide by the result. But neither statehood nor independence are solutions to the island’s immediate crisis of fiscal mismanagement and debt insolvency.
The voters were thoroughly unimpressed with what came across as a gimmick and a political stunt, and so called their Governor’s bluff by simply staying home. The result is yet another failed referendum that did not produce the kind of clear majority support necessary to pressure Congress into finally acting on statehood.
(An 1886 map of Puerto Rico.)