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Puerto Ricans to vote on recurring question of remaining US territory

By Frances Robles, The Miami Herald –

Puerto Ricans will head to the polls Tuesday to answer a question that has long divided the island of 4 million people: Do they still want to be a U.S. territory?

It will be the fourth time in 114 years that such a poll has been taken. But while some politicians dismiss the electoral exercise as a pointless waste of time, both those who want to join the union and people who wish to abandon it believe this may be the referendum that finally forces Congress to take up a thorny issue it has traditionally avoided.

Experts say they shouldn’t count on it.

“This plebiscite is undemocratic and un-American,” said Hector Ferrer, a spokesman for the Popular Democratic Party, which favors an enhanced version of Puerto Rico’s current commonwealth status.

A little history:

Puerto Rico has been part of the United States since 1898, when Spain ceded it in the Spanish-American War. People there are U.S. citizens who do not cast ballots in presidential elections or pay federal taxes, but they enjoy social welfare perks such as Medicare. The island has a long history of military service but just one member of Congress — who does not vote.

When asked whether they’d rather become the 51st state or remain affiliated with the United States, voters have traditionally been at a stalemate. It’s always a dead heat between those two options, with a small minority of voters opting for an independent nation.

The last time a plebiscite was held, in 1998, Ferrer’s party did not like the ballot language, so “none of the above” finished first.

But this plebiscite is different. Instead of asking voters a multiple choice question in which no one answer would get a clear majority, the ballot asks: “Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?”

The difference is critical, because it unites the voters who prefer statehood with those who want independence. Together those two forces could form a majority to answer “no,” which would then force the second question.

It asks voters whether they want statehood, independence or a “sovereign free associated state,” where Puerto Rico would be an independent nation with ties to the United States. (Part two of the plebiscite would only be valid if the majority voted no on the first question.) The Popular Democratic Party balked because none of the options on the ballot quite reflects what they promote for Puerto Rico, which is an enhanced version of what the island has now. Since “none of the above” is no longer one of the choices, the party is asking voters to say “yes” on the first question and skip the second.

Critics argue that the deck was unfairly stacked toward statehood and was deliberately designed so that the party that usually wins is left out.

“It’s clearly a political play by the government in power to promote its agenda,” said Jorge Duany, a longtime University of Puerto Rico professor who now runs the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “It’s extremely biased and does not reflect the consensus. If you don’t include the Popular Party, you are missing half the population.”

Ferrer said it was really just a mobilization ploy by the governor, who is running for re-election and needed a gimmick to get his people to the polls. Gov. Luis Fortuno dismissed the criticism, saying it was impossible to reach a consensus with a party that refused to participate in the process.

Fortuno said he’s convinced that the U.S. Congress will finally take up statehood for Puerto Rico when it is handed results of a plebiscite showing that the majority of Puerto Ricans want it.

“We fought in every single war with courage and valor since we were made citizens in 1917. . . . How can anyone say, ‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say?’ ” he said. “We have never done this before: We have never requested to join the union.”

Fortuno seems convinced that statehood would win. In the 14 years since the last plebiscite was held, up to half a million Puerto Ricans have left the island for the mainland, and now the family members they left behind see the benefits of full U.S. citizenship, he said.

The populace is younger, more bilingual and wants a deeper relationship with the country marked on passports, the governor added.

The political action committee formed to push statehood is run by Hernan Padilla, a former mayor of San Juan who now lives in Weston.

“Puerto Rico is currently at a democratic deficit,” Padilla said. “If voters decide, ‘I am happy with poverty, am not interested in Medicare and education; I’m fine the way we are,’ then perfect. But I am convinced statehood will win. It’s just not going to happen from one day to another.”

If Puerto Rico did vote for statehood, it would present the results to Congress, which would then have to order another referendum.

But cynics say Congress might hesitate to add two senators and seven representatives to a low-income state with staggering unemployment, where the majority is not fluent in English.

“What’s important here is to for Congress to step up and say, ‘What are we going to do with Puerto Rico?’ ” said Fernando Martin, president of the Puerto Rico Independence Party. “Congress has never acted. It always had the excuse that Puerto Rico was divided.”

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