Gov. Scott misses the mark on Puerto Rican statehood

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate, recently came out in support of making Puerto Rico the 51st state of the Union. In his remarks, Scott claimed that “the U.S. should ‘respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico.’” I could not agree more. The problem is that the clear majority of Puerto Rican voters have consistently rejected the idea of statehood in five referenda held on the matter. In 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017, Puerto Rican voters have reiterated time and again that they do not want Puerto Rico to become a state. Unfortunately, when it comes to this highly divisive issue, many stateside politicians ignore – either willfully or unwittingly – the complicated history of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico and our people’s repeated attempts to change that reality.

The history of referendum results and how they were set up is key to understanding this issue. Let us recap. After losing the first two votes held on the matter in 1967 and 1993, the statehood movement attempted to rig the process and held a referendum in 1998 which excluded the Commonwealth option. Puerto Ricans did not fall for this trap and 51 percent voted for the “None of the Above” option. In 2012, after packing the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and overturning the legal precedent for that option to appear on the ballot, the statehood party once again tried to rig the ballot by excluding “None of the Above.” This time, voters cast blank ballots to protest and statehood received only 45 percent of the vote, which is lower than the 46 percent it received in 1998.

Given that the referendum results were inconclusive, the Obama administration proposed, and Congress approved, a process whereby the Puerto Rico State Election Commission (CEE in Spanish) would receive $2.5 million in federal funds for an educational campaign and referendum with options to resolve the status of Puerto Rico. Release of the funding was contingent upon the U.S. Department of Justice approving the language of the ballot and the educational materials to ensure they complied with the Constitution, laws, and public policies of the U.S. government. Having won the governor’s mansion, the Legislature, and the non-voting delegate Resident Commissioner position in Congress in the 2016 election, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) had a once in a lifetime opportunity to hold a first-of-its-kind “federally sanctioned” referendum.

Then, something unexpected happened. The Department of Justice reviewed the referendum materials sent by the Commonwealth government and it decided that changes needed to be made because the language was misleading. This was another attempt by the statehood faction to artificially manufacture a statehood “win” by excluding other options or wording them in such a way their supporters would find unacceptable. This was the same strategy statehooders employed in 1998 and 2012; which explains the need for DOJ to have a role in the first place.

Yet, instead of fixing the language to ensure it complied with DOJ requirements – and so Congress would take the referendum seriously – the governor decided to go ahead with a statehood referendum that excluded the current Commonwealth status, or any autonomic alternative, and presented voters with the faulty ballot rejected by the Attorney General. This was clearly an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise and avoid risking defeat. Again, voters saw right through it and every non-statehood political party in Puerto Rico called for a boycott of the vote. The day of the referendum, only 23 percent of voters showed up at the polls. This is significant in an island with average voter turnout of more than 70 percent.

Policymakers on Capitol Hill should keep this history in mind the next time statehood supporters come knocking on their door alleging that statehood has the support of 97 percent of Puerto Ricans. That is simply misleading and inaccurate. With eight out of 10 voters choosing not to vote in that referendum, the results do not express the true desire of the people of Puerto Rico to achieve self-determination. In addition, why would Congress pay attention to the results of a referendum that purposefully ignored the conditions it set for such a vote? Why was the current pro-statehood government so afraid of holding a vote according to DOJ guidelines? For the longest time statehooders have been clamoring for federal buy-in to resolve this dilemma. Unfortunately, what they got was an expensive political check the box exercise that was rightly ignored in Washington.

After a severe financial crisis that has resulted in more than 600,000 Puerto Ricans leaving the Island, $72 billion in debt, and a botched federal response to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico needs to rebuild. Tens of thousands of homes remain without power, 8 months after the storm, and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans – all U.S. citizens – continue to be displaced in states all over the mainland. Now is not the time to play politics with the aspirations of the people of Puerto Rico.

What Puerto Rico deserves is a fair and inclusive self-determination process to end more than 100 years of U.S. colonialism in the island. What it does not need is stateside politicians fishing for campaign contributions by twisting the truth about this critical matter. Puerto Rico has always rejected statehood. After President Trump’s insults to Puerto Ricans and his failed hurricane disaster relief efforts, that rejection is likely to continue.

Mark-Viverito was the immediate past Speaker of the New York City Council and is now a Senior Advisor for the Latino Victory Project.

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