Puerto Rico has been a non-incorporated territory of the United States since 1898. In 1952 the island gained a certain degree of self-government through the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but its colonial nature went unchanged. Of course, the country has not been idle. In the second half of the 20th century it transformed itself from an agricultural-based economy into an industrial nation, but it has always lagged the continental USA. In fact, since the late 1970s Puerto Rico has actually stopped growing in real terms.
To cope with the economic problem, the local government has resorted to extreme public debt. Also, federal transfers to Puerto Rico have increased to an unprecedented level, now estimated to be 20 percent of the Puerto Rico's total budget. As a result, two conflicting paradigms have emerged. One looks upon continued U.S. aid as a necessity, the other seeks self-sufficiency through the exercise of sovereign powers. This, in essence, is the political status problem of PR.
Until very recently the U.S. could cope with the problem by arguing that the majority of Puerto Ricans actually favor the status quo. Not anymore. On November 6, 2012, Puerto Rico held a plebiscite posing two questions related to its political status. The first required the voter to state if he or she was satisfied with the territorial condition. The second asked voters to state their preference for a non-colonial alternative.
On the first question 54 percent said NO. In fact, many more would have voted NO had it not been because the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) – which actually won the recent general elections – was against the plebiscite and asked the voters to vote YES. The PPD also favored leaving the second question unanswered, since their favored alternative, enhanced commonwealth, was not included as an explicit option. Some pro-independence groups were also in favor of boycotting the plebiscite.
Statehood obtained 61 percent of the vote; sovereign free association, 33 percent; and independence 6 percent. It would seem that statehood was the clear victor. However, 26 percent of the plebiscite voters left the second question blank, and there is overall agreement that these voters are not in favor of statehood. Therefore, when the blank/protest votes are factored in, the absolute majority (55 percent) is actually against statehood.
Naturally, statehood supporters argue otherwise. Their contention is that blank votes cannot or should not be taken into account. Nevertheless, a status change is of such a fundamental nature that an alternative cannot be implemented until an absolute majority in its favor is non-dubious. Clearly, this is not the case when referencing the second plebiscite question.
But the first question – Do you favor the present territorial status? – has been answered and its interpretation is straightforward. The people rejected the territorial nature of the Commonwealth. Thus, another plebiscite is required, with but one question: Which non-colonial status do you favor? It should be a federally sponsored plebiscite with clear alternatives defined by Congress. This is an absolute necessity since, contrary to independence which is an undeniable right, statehood and sovereign free association are both dependent on the willingness of the USA to concede them.
In conclusion, Congress should step in and speak clearly and truthfully to the people of Puerto Rico as to what the USA is willing to offer as a political solution. Puerto Rico’s call for decolonization is clear. Will the USA respond as a nation true to its beginnings or is it still stuck in the outdated paradigms of colonialism?
Arbona is retired chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla and author of the book “Rompiendo el cerco: nuevos paradigmas sobre el estatus politico de Puerto Rico” (“Breaking the Fence: New Paradigms on Puerto Rico’s Political Status”).