Published: Mon, June 12, 2017
World News | By Penny Hart

Puerto Rico turnout low as voters back statehood


The island, a USA territory since 1898, held a non-binding referendum on statehood Sunday, and becoming the 51st state won with 97% of the votes, NBC reports, with 1.3% opting for the status quo and 1.5% choosing independence.

Puerto Rico is exempt from the US federal income tax, but it still pays Social Security and Medicare and local taxes and receives less federal funding than USA states.

It did not act on the previous referendum's result, which was the first time ever a majority of valid votes were cast for statehood in the former Spanish colony. In 2012, the island opted for statehood, but Congress, the ultimate arbiter of the Puerto Rico's bid for statehood, never picked up the matter.

It was the lowest level of participation in any election in Puerto Rico since 1967, according to Carlos Vargas Ramos, an associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in NY.

"I voted for statehood", Armando Abreu, a 74-year-old retiree, said after voting at the Escuela Gabriela Mistral.

"Eight out of 10 voters went to the beach, went to the river, went to go eat, went to go hang out, went to church, but they sure didn't go out to vote", said opposition party leader Héctor Ferrer at a San Juan press conference according to NBC News.

The restructuring of Puerto Rico's roughly $70 billion in outstanding debt would be the largest in the history of the US municipal bond market and will set the stage for a lengthy legal battle between the island and its creditors, which include multiple hedge funds and mutual funds, as they face off in court where a federally appointed judge could force creditors to accept unfavorable repayment terms. While Puerto Ricans are American citizens and contribute to Social Security and Medicare, they do not vote for the USA president, and their single representative in Congress has no vote.

More than half a million people voted for statehood during Sunday's referendum, followed by almost 7,800 votes for free association/independence and more than 6,800 votes for the current territorial status.

Results showed that 97.2 percent of those who voted wanted statehood, 1.5 percent supported independence and 1.3 percent backed no change.

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Many Puerto Ricans doubt Congress can be convinced to incorporate the island, especially in the island's current economic condition, The New York Times reported.

But the Rossello government insists statehood is the answer to the financial crisis hanging over the island of 3.4 million, where some 45 percent of the population live in poverty.

For Puerto Ricans, Sunday was a day of celebration and contention.

The 2017 referendum was called by the government of the island against a background of economic crisis, which some attribute at least partially to Puerto Rico's unusual legal status, halfway between independence and full statehood. Today we are sending a strong and clear message for equal rights as American citizens.

"We have to vote because things are not going well", she said. Those who remain behind have been hit with new taxes and higher utility bills on an island where food is 22 percent more expensive than the USA mainland and public services are 64 percent more expensive.

But the so-called "Caribbean Greece" found easy relief in USA municipal bond markets, where investors could get attractive tax-exempt bonds that provided ready cash but sank the island deeper into debt.

A department spokesman told the AP that the agency has not reviewed or approved the ballot's language.

The current territorial status option received 6,821 votes, or 1.32 percent. Take the last two referendums in 1998 and in 2012 for example.

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