| NEW YORK, June 9
NEW YORK, June 9 Against a backdrop of crumbling
towns and failing schools, Puerto Ricans on Sunday will cast
votes on whether their struggling island should become the 51st
The status referendum, Puerto Rico's fifth since 1967, is
unlikely to change the island's label as a U.S. territory, a
move that would require an act of the U.S. Congress.
But the vote is culturally important and timely for an
island whose hazy political status has contributed to an
economic crisis that pushed it last month into the biggest
municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Sunday's plebiscite will offer voters three options for
Puerto Rico: to become a U.S. state; to remain a territory; or
to become an independent nation, with or without some continuing
political association with the U.S.
Congressional apathy "doesn't mean the vote's not worth
doing, because this kind of vote is the only way out of a
colonial situation," said Columbia Law School Professor
Christina Duffy Ponsa, an expert on Puerto Rico territory issues
who supports statehood.
Hamstrung by $70 billion in debt and a 45-percent poverty
rate, Puerto Rico is battling woefully underperforming schools,
and near-insolvent pension and health systems.
Its 3.5 million American citizens do not pay federal taxes,
vote for U.S. presidents or receive proportionate federal
funding on programs like Medicaid.
Governor Ricardo Rossello campaigned on holding a referendum
and believes U.S. statehood is the island's best hope. His PNP
party, which controls Puerto Rico's government, is premised on a
pro-statehood stance. The opposition PPD supports versions of
the current territory status.
Ramon Rosario Cortes, a Rossello spokesman, told Reuters the
governor will push Congress to respect the result, "and we
expect they will respect the will of 3.5 million American
But Puerto Rico is seen as a low priority in Washington and
"Congress won't do anything," said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an
Illinois Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, who supports making
the island an independent nation.
"It's not that we're ignoring the plebiscite; we're ignoring
the plight of Puerto Ricans," he said.
Support for independence is more prevalent among the Puerto
Rican diaspora in the United States than in Puerto Rico itself,
where that option historically earns just a few percentage
points in referenda.
Rossello had hoped to fund Sunday's vote with federal
dollars in order to make it harder for Congress to ignore the
Congress authorized $2.5 million for a Puerto Rico status
referendum in 2014, but required the Justice Department to
approve the ballot's language in order to release the funds.
In April, the department rejected initial ballot language
that would have excluded the option to remain a territory,
prompting Rossello to change it.
But Justice "has not reviewed or approved the current"
language, a department spokesman told Reuters.
THE COMMONWEALTH CONUNDRUM
Since referenda are usually organized by pro-statehood
groups who oppose the status quo, the question of how to treat
the territory option is sticky.
If organizers do not include a territory option on the
ballot, as Rossello initially did not, they risk being seen as
politically inequitable to roughly half the population that
supports territory status.
Yet including the option, which organizers believe is
tantamount to colonialism, runs counter to their objective of
changing the island's status.
The last referendum, in 2012, used a two-step structure,
first asking voters whether they wanted Puerto Rico to remain in
its current status, then asking them to pick a preference among
While statehood won, PPD leaders instructed constituents to
leave blank hundreds of thousands of ballots, calling the result
(Editing by Daniel Bases and Bernadette Baum)