Puerto Rico heads to sixth non-binding referendum on political status

Citizens given option to vote “yes” or “no” to turning island into 51st US state · Vote not endorsed by US government, unlikely to lead to change in status

Bandera de Puerto Rico.
Bandera de Puerto Rico. Author: Ricardo\'s Photography @ Flickr
Citizens of Puerto Rico are called to vote for the sixth time on the relationship the island should have with the United States. It is unlikely that the referendum will immediately lead to a new status for Puerto Rico, as the vote is not binding and does not have the support of the US government.

The plebiscite is scheduled to take place on 3 November 2020, coinciding with Puerto Rico’s general election. The Puerto Rican law providing for the vote has been passed by both the island’s Senate and House of Representatives. Puerto Rican governor Wanda Vázquez signed the law on 16 May.

Voters will need to answer “yes” or “no” to the following question: “Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State?”.

This will be the first time that a referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico has a question with a binary answer. On the five previous occasions (1963, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017), the ballot included three options or more.

“Never before have we had the opportunity to give such a strong mandate to the government of Puerto Rico and such a clear message to the US Congress,” Vázquez has said.

The governor is a member of the New Progressive Party (NPP, conservative), which advocates for Puerto Rico’s admission into the United States as its 51st state.

In opposition, both the Popular Democratic Party (PDP, social liberal) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP, social democratic) have voted against the law. Both consider that conditions are not currently met for the vote to help solve the issue of the political status, and perceive the move as a manoeuvre by the NPP to reinforce Vázquez’s prospects to be re-elected, portraying her as the first governor ever capable of calling a binary referendum.

However, the PDP has decided not to boycott the referendum —unlike in 2017— and has announced that it will call for a “no” vote on whether Puerto Rico should be admitted into the US. The PIP will also campaign for a “no” vote.

The vote is not recognised by the United States. It is not yet ensured that federal money will be available to fund the referendum. In any case, the law states that the Puerto Rican government has the obligation to make economic resources “possible”, whether or not funding is received from Washington.

What does the new Puerto Rican law provide for if “yes” wins?

The law provides that “a transition process” will “immediately” begin “for the admission of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union.” Such a process “shall be implemented in the shortest time possible and no later than one year from 3 November 2020.”

Afterwards, the governor and the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico (a non-voting representative of the Puerto Rican government in the US House of Representatives) are expected to draft a transition plan to be presented to the congressional leaders of the two major US parties, as well as to the president of the United States.

If this point is reached, as things stand right now, it is unlikely that the initiative will go any further. The Democratic Party, much less the Republican Party, do not explicitly support the admission of Puerto Rico in the short term. President Donald Trump has categorically rejected it, while Joe Biden, his Democratic rival in the November election, has never made a clear reference to it.

In October 2019, Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico Jennifer González-Colón introduced a bill in Congress aimed at calling an officially sponsored referendum. It has not gone forward for the time being.

Congressional control

Legally speaking, Puerto Rico is a dependency of the United States Congress. Thus, the island cannot exercise self-determination without its permission. Although the island is partially self-governing, US authorities can apply extensive controls on it. The most recent and prominent one is the Financial Oversight Board (FOB), which has been controlling Puerto Rico’s finances since 2016.

The FOB was imposed by the US Congress after Puerto Rican authorities admitted that the island was unable to service its debt.

The establishment of the FOC made the island’s lack of real independence further visible. Not only economically, but politically, as Puerto Rican citizens, despite holding US passports, do not have the right to vote in Congress.

If there is one thing that the different political factions in Puerto Rico agree on, it is precisely that such a status has serious democratic shortcomings. There is also a general perception that Puerto Rico receives less federal funding than it should, and that the island is therefore mistreated by US authorities. This perception has been exacerbated by the consequences on the island of the 2008 crisis and of the evastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

But while the NPP believes that admission as a US member state is the solution, the other parties hold different views. The PDP advocates renegotiating the relationship with the US to ensure a new status granting enlarged self-government and funding, without relinquishing ties with Washington. The PIP, on the other hand, calls for full independence.

In none of the five referendums held so far has there been a clear majority for any option. The two with the most support, by far, are integration into the US and renegotiation of status.