On June 11, millions of Puerto Ricans will head to the polls to decide the political status of the Caribbean island.
Sunday’s two-part plebiscite, the fifth held since 1967, will decide the future of the unincorporated U.S. territory. Since 1898, Puerto Rico has functioned as a “commonwealth” of the U.S., essentially making it a colony of Washington.
Puerto Ricans will be presented with three options: Statehood, Independence/Free Association and Current Territorial Status (commonwealth). If the majority vote for Independence/Free Association, a second vote will be arranged to decide the outcome — either complete independence as a sovereign nation or an associated free state status with independence allowing “free and voluntary association” with the United States.
The Free Association option, according to the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico, would establish a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Puerto Rico that would create “close links” between both nations. These links include monetary policy, citizenship, and defense, among others.
The agreement, however, can be terminated at any point by either party.
Puerto Rico’s plebiscite will be held amid rising debate over the country’s current colonial status.
Students at the University of Puerto Rico, for example, have led a two-month-long strike against a proposed US$450 million education budget cut. The austerity program was requested by the U.S.-imposed fiscal control board set up last year in an attempt to pay off the island’s crippling US$74 billion debt.
The student strikers, who will return to classes the day after the plebiscite, have frequently attributed the origins of the country’s debt crisis cuts to Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Echoing their claims, a recent study by the ReFund America Project revealed that a significant portion of the island’s debt is illegitimate.
Puerto Rican independence hero Oscar Lopez Rivera has also reignited the debate over the country’s colonial status. Since his May 17 release, the former militant has openly called for reinvigorating the island’s independence movement.
Lopez Rivera, who spent 36 years in a U.S. prison for his participation in an armed anti-colonial insurrection, backs the burgeoning pro-independence, anti-austerity student-led movement.
Those who support statehood, like Gov. Ricardo Rossello, have claimed that it would help resolve the island’s debt problems.
Last month, Rossello said that being incorporated into the U.S. would allow Puerto Rico to become a “diplomatic center and a business center of the Americas,” Florida’s WLRN reported. His Puerto Rican Republican Party also called on U.S. Congress to “approve an enabling act with terms for Puerto Rico’s future admission as the 51st state of the Union.
Groups that back the current commonwealth status, like the Popular Democratic Party, PPD, have called for a boycott of the plebiscite. PPD President Hector Ferrer has gone as far as claiming the vote is “invalid” and “rigged.”
“The PPD has always defended democracy and exercising the right to vote, but at this moment we can not give our consent and our vote for a process that is not useful, that is not binding and that only wants to deceive our people,” Ferrer said Wednesday, according to Terra.
Ferrer and the PPD believe Puerto Rico is best served by maintaining a voluntary relationship with the U.S. in areas of “mutual benefit,” such as economics and defense.
Puerto Rico has also held plebiscites in 1967, 1993, 1998 and 2012.
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