Puerto Rico on Sunday overwhelmingly voted for statehood. But Congress, the only body that can approve new states, will ultimately decide whether the status of the US commonwealth changes.
Ninety-seven percent of the votes in the nonbinding referendum favored statehood, an increase over the results of a 2012 referendum, official results from the State Electoral Commission show. It was the fifth such vote on statehood.
“Today, we the people of Puerto Rico are sending a strong and clear message to the US Congress … and to the world … claiming our equal rights as American citizens, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a news release.
What do we really know about Puerto Rico?
When outsiders think of Puerto Rico, a couple of things probably come to mind: It’s a small island in the Caribbean. People mostly speak Spanish there. It’s not a US state but has American ties. They were the Sharks in “West Side Story.” (Wait, maybe they were the Jets?) But there’s so much more to know.
Some Puerto Ricans are raring to cozy up with America to jump-start a flagging economy; meanwhile, some residents would just as soon maintain the status quo, and others would prefer to break ties altogether.
Momentum has been building for the island shaped like a postage stamp to join the union as the 51st state, so it’s probably smart to start reading up about America’s cousin to the south — its background, economic status and heritage.
Step back in time
The Taíno Indians already called the island home when Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493, and it was settled around 1508 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León.
It was eventually named Puerto Rico, which means “rich port” and became a Spanish colony for about 400 years.
The Spanish mined for gold and established agricultural plantations with slave labor, but the colony eventually became more valuable as a military outpost.
The island came under US control in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.
What’s a commonwealth?
A 1950 federal law helped clarify the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, paving the way for a public vote on its new constitution. After it was approved in 1952 by the people of Puerto Rico, President Harry Truman, Congress and the Puerto Rican governor, the island became an official US commonwealth.
What’s the difference between a commonwealth and a territory? Not too much, except that commonwealths have their own constitutions. Puerto Rican residents have been US citizens since 1917 (thanks to the Jones Act), so they receive many of the same benefits and protections, with just a few differences.
For one, they can truthfully say, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for them,” when discussing the US presidency. While voters can participate in primary elections, they can’t vote for president in the general election. In 2016, 75% of Puerto Ricans voted for Marco Rubio in the Republican primary (and nearly 14% for Donald Trump) versus Hillary Clinton’s 61% of the Democratic vote.
Puerto Rico has a nonvoting delegate in Washington, called a resident commissioner. Back home, Puerto Rico has its own governor and legislative body.
A definite plus to living on the island and one reason some might prefer things as they are: Puerto Ricans only have to pay federal income taxes on work they’ve done in the States, and not at home.
As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico gets US military protection and receives federal funding from the government for highways and social programs, just not as much as an official state gets.
Citizens pay into Social Security and have access to Medicare and Medicaid, but instead of being eligible for Supplemental Security Income assistance, low-income, elderly and blind or disabled people can get help from a similar program run by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
There could be a lot of changes in federal programs if Puerto Rico joins Team USA as a state, such as those for student loans, the GI Bill, Pell Grants and assistance programs for families and children.
Statehood, independence or somewhere in between
Options on the weekend referendum included remaining a commonwealth, becoming a state, entering “free association” or becoming an independent nation. Free association is an official affiliation with the United States where Puerto Rico would still receive military assistance and funding.
Four plebiscites, or popular votes, have been held to decide the commonwealth’s status in relation to America. Three of four times, Puerto Rico residents voted against statehood (in 1967, 1993 and 1998).
In a 2012 referendum the majority of voters for the first time chose statehood, but it didn’t go anywhere. (Some argued the results should have been considered a “no” since more than one-third of voters left the part about alternative status blank.)
Jorge Benitez, a political scientist at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, said the only definite takeaway from the 2012 vote results at the time was that the people of Puerto Rico wanted a change in status. “It isn’t clear what change we want, but we want change,” he said.
“I think people just came to realize that the current relationship simply does not create the number of jobs that we need,” Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock said after that vote nearly five years ago.
In 2012, 6% of voters opted to cut ties with the United States.