Puerto Rico's fifth plebiscite Sunday on whether to become an independent country, the 51 U.S. state or remain a U.S. territory was characterized by a staggering 78 percent voter abstention after the independence movement called for a boycott of what it termed an illegal vote.
With 97 percent of the vote in, statehood won in a non-binding referendum that the U.S. colonial power does not have to recognize. According to data published on the website of the State Elections Commission, a total of 476,635 voters out of the 2.8 million eligible voters, chose statehood. Those who voted for independence reached 1.5 percent of the vote, and 1.3 chose the current commonwealth status.
Independence groups, along with three political parties, called for a boycott of the ballot as a protest against the government spending US$7.5 million on the election in the middle of a budget crisis that has forced the island to take on harsh austerity measures, making its colonial status more acute as the country can not solve the crisis without U.S. approval.
Critics also pointed out that the U.S. Department of Justice has not supported the plebiscite.
"I'm not voting. The government has spent millions of dollars on this campaign hoping that statehood wins, but even if it does, the U.S. Congress won't want to do anything about it," Felix Salasarar told Reuters.
The boycott seemed to have struck a chord with voters, amid a debt crisis, growing protests against austerity measures and the recent release of independence leader Oscar Lopez Rivera.
Puerto Rico independence activists held a caravan during the vote in the capital of San Juan outside the U.S. Federal Court building.
Vice President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party Maria de Lourdes Santiago described the electoral exercise as a failure, "The result of the plebiscite is a failure for those who were allowed to impose the inclusion of the colonial option and only served to dramatize disinterest and rejection of any project of annexation."
Those who support statehood, like Governor Ricardo Rossello, claimed that the change in status would help resolve the island’s US$123 billion debt load, including pension debts. 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.”
Groups that back the current commonwealth status, like the Popular Democratic Party, called for a boycott of the plebiscite, claiming the vote is “invalid” and “rigged.”
A spokesperson for the governor told Reuters he will push Congress to respect a result in favor of statehood, saying the island will pursue the Tennessee Plan, where U.S. territories send a congressional delegation to Washington.
Puerto Rico’s ability to deal with its debt crisis has been crippled by its legal status as a colony of the United States, which bars the island from filing for bankruptcy. An initial audit report found that up to US$30 billion of Puerto Rico’s debt load was issued illegally.