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Editorial: Puerto Rico’s plebiscite vote is a historic moment

Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

On Tuesday, voters in Puerto Rico took up the question of the island’s relationship with the United States for the first time since 1998 and used the opportunity to endorse the option of statehood. 54 percent of voters decided that the island should not maintain its current legal association with the United States as an overseas territory. Regardless of whether voters preferred to maintain the current status of the island, 61 percent preferred statehood of the possible non-territorial options and only 5.5 percent supported full independence for Puerto Rico. This verdict by the voters of Puerto Rico, though non-binding, represents the maturation of their claim to full citizenship in the United States and deserves affirmation by the U.S. Congress and by the President.

Puerto Rico is one of the last vestiges of American imperialist aggression at the turn of the 20th century. It was seized from Spanish control in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and was immediately placed under military rule. It was soon granted institutions of local government. Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917, but were also subjected to conscription in that same year as the United States entered World War I. While it is true that Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income tax, they pay into the Social Security and Medicare systems, are subject to the oversight of federal agencies and are under the jurisdiction of courts based in the mainland U.S. In many ways, Puerto Ricans fulfill the same duties and enjoy many of the same benefits of citizenship as residents of the 50 states.

But the important drawback of the current status of Puerto Rico is its almost complete disfranchisement. The island contains 3.7 million citizens, none of which were permitted to vote in the presidential election which took place concurrently with the referendum. Puerto Rico has no representation in the Senate and only one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, though its population would probably entitle it to five or six representatives and seven or eight electoral votes. Voting has an immense symbolic connotation of legitimacy and empowerment, and we cannot take ourselves seriously as a democracy if we continue to deprive so many millions of our own citizens to participate with us in our elections.

Tuesday’s referendum did not render a clear victory for the proponents of statehood, especially when 46 percent of the island’s electorate voted to maintain the territorial status quo. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of those voters left the choice on the ballot between non-territorial options blank. There is still much popular uncertainty over the road ahead for Puerto Rico. But the responsibility for choosing the road to follow is also up to leaders and politicians on the mainland. Congress should make Puerto Rico the 51st state to ensure that Americans from Puerto Rico receive, as citizens, the same privileges and responsibilities as the rest of us.

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