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While US votes for president, Puerto Rico may secede from America

Published time: November 06, 2012 22:14
Edited time: November 07, 2012 02:14
Carmen Busquets casts her vote for the Plebiscite on Political status in the ballot box in San Juan, November 6, 2012. (Reuters / Ana Martinez)

Carmen Busquets casts her vote for the Plebiscite on Political status in the ballot box in San Juan, November 6, 2012. (Reuters / Ana Martinez)

For many voters this Election Day, it’s not a matter of who will be the next president that’s a pressing issue: in Puerto Rico, people are hitting the polls to decide if the US territory should petition Congress for statehood.

The Atlantic Ocean island of Puerto Rico is home to around 4 million people, but some say their relationship with the United States isn’t what it should be, even more than a century into a longstanding relationship. Currently, the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is subject to American jurisdiction and sovereignty, as well the rule of whatever president is elected by the rest of the country — voters on the island, however, can’t have a say in that contest.

Pending the results of a vote on Election Day, though, that could change. Puerto Ricans going to the polls on November 6 aren’t opting for a president, but rather whether or not they should ask to join the union as the fifty-first state. This year, voters are being asked to weigh in on a two-part referendum that has them answering if they want to change their relationship with the US, and to what.

When Puerto Ricans go to the polls this year, they have the option of answering if they want to stop being a commonwealth of the US and, if so, what would they prefer: statehood, independence or sovereign free association.

This is the fourth time voters in Puerto Rico have been asked such a question in just 45 years, but the outcome this election season might bring a surprise: as of this week, a poll conducted by Asisa Research Group suspects that 47.9 percent of voters will want statehood, as opposed to independence or sovereignty.

In the past, a majority of voters have always agreed to stay subject to US laws without the representation allowed in the 50 other united states. Some say citizens might be more obliged to vote differently this year, though, as the benefits from becoming a state could save the island from some of the worst crimes it’s experienced in ages. In 2011, Puerto Rico reported 1,117 killings on an island barely 3,000 square miles, and currently they’re seeing unemployment at above 13 percent — double what some counties in the mainland have in terms of jobless rates.

Should Puerto Ricans vote for statehood, the island will be allowed roughly $20 billion in additional federal funding from Washington, as well as representation in Congress that could help bring in even more money down the road. In an environment where that sort of investment could easily turn things around, some say it’s a no-brainer.

"Puerto Rico has to be a state. There is no other option," 25-year-old Jerome Lefebre tells the Associated Press on his way to the polls on Tuesday. "We're doing OK, but we could do better. We would receive more benefits, a lot more financial help."

Fernando Martin, the executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), tells BBC that right now things are fair for fellow residents nestled roughly 1,000 miles off the mainland. "In our case, the government of another country makes decisions every day without the participation of Puerto Ricans,” he notes.

Under American rule without equal representation, some say they have been practically colonized by American leaders who limit what say residents have on their own. That stripping of culture and heritage is evident in many, like another man interviewed by the AP: 42-year-old Ramon Lopez de Azua.

"Puerto Rico's problem is not its political status," he said. "I think that the United States is the best country in the world, but I am Puerto Rican first."

"We don't want to continue being a colony. We want the full rights that we're entitled to as American citizens," Thomas Rivera Schatz, president of the territory's local Senate, adds to the Chicago Tribune. "Because we're a colony, we have the misfortune of being first (in line) for federal cuts and last in line for handouts."

Others, however, have come to the consensus that statehood could be all too inevitable.

"I believe the country should become a 51st State because the US has influenced our country completely and we are 100% Americanised," one young woman tells the BBC.

On Election Day, voters in Puerto Rico will elect a governor, but no president. The Asisa Research Group has Gov. Luis Fortuño as the likely opponent this year over challenger Sen. Alejandro Garcia Padilla.

Puerto Rico′s Governor Luis Fortuno of his pro-statehood New Progressive Party, who is running for re-election, shows his Plebiscite on Political status ballot in San Juan, November 6, 2012. (Reuters / Ana Martinez)
Puerto Rico's Governor Luis Fortuno of his pro-statehood New Progressive Party, who is running for re-election, shows his Plebiscite on Political status ballot in San Juan, November 6, 2012. (Reuters / Ana Martinez)

Fernando Martin, the executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), tells BBC that right now things are fair for fellow residents nestled roughly 1,000 miles off the mainland. "In our case, the government of another country makes decisions every day without the participation of Puerto Ricans,” he notes.

Under American rule without equal representation, some say they have been practically colonized by American leaders who limit what say residents have on their own. That stripping of culture and heritage is evident in many, like another man interviewed by the AP: 42-year-old Ramon Lopez de Azua.

"Puerto Rico's problem is not its political status," he said. "I think that the United States is the best country in the world, but I am Puerto Rican first."

"We don't want to continue being a colony. We want the full rights that we're entitled to as American citizens," Thomas Rivera Schatz, president of the territory's local Senate, adds to the Chicago Tribune. "Because we're a colony, we have the misfortune of being first (in line) for federal cuts and last in line for handouts."

Others, however, have come to the consensus that statehood could be all too inevitable.

"I believe the country should become a 51st State because the US has influenced our country completely and we are 100% Americanised," one young woman tells the BBC.

On Election Day, voters in Puerto Rico will elect a governor, but no president. The Asisa Research Group has Gov. Luis Fortuño as the likely opponent this year over challenger Sen. Alejandro Garcia Padilla.

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