June 23, 2017
Puerto Rico voted in overwhelming favor for statehood on June 11, 2017. Although 97% of the votes were in support, there was a drastic reduction in the U.S territory’s statistically high voter turnout. A mere 23% of voters cast their ballot at the Sunday referendum, following allegations of a misleading ballot in April. The 2017 ballot followed that of the 2012 referendum, in which the vote for statehood won favor. Despite the 2012 result, the referendum was nonbinding, and no actions were taken.
As U.S.-born citizens, Puerto Rican residents seek full representation within the constitution and legal systems. Without statehood, Puerto Ricans cannot vote for a U.S. president; are not represented within U.S. Congress; and cannot receive aid from many government programs. Although Puerto Rico provides one of the largest military populations for its total civilian populace, they receive little to no medical aid after their service. These soldiers also have no representative voice within Congress in order to request aid.
Puerto Rican residents are conflicted on the results of the referendum. While some argue in support of statehood, others lean toward the Commonwealth standing Puerto Rico currently holds. 6% of voters in the 2012 referendum opted to cut ties with the United States. The 2017 ballot failed to represent these options, leading those opposing statehood or distrusting previously misleading ballots to re-frame from casting their vote. Although another vote will be proposed in October, the low voter turnout in June may continue and prove difficult to convince Congress in their decision-making.
Although Puerto Ricans may differ about the method, they agree that change is necessary for their survival. Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy on May 3, 2017, following numerous past declarations. Professionals leave in favor of the mainland, with a physician estimated to leave the territory each day, (Allen, Greg). The unemployment rate has steadily risen to 11.5% in March of this year, with 46% of the population living below the poverty line, (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The drop in the economy has resulted in the closure of many schools—179 as of May 10, 2017. The closures are in efforts to save up to $40 million a month, (Robles, Frances), at the sacrifice of the student populace. More school closings are projected as the Commonwealth battles to compensate for $123 billion deficit and pension obligations. A Guayama-based Santa Rosa Hospital was shut down for their amassed $4 million unpaid bills (Rappleye, Emily). Hospital and school closings are becoming a norm for the 3,515 mi² island and leave the residents’ livelihood at an all-time low.
Besides the financial crisis, Puerto Rico is a Central American-based Commonwealth facing the Zika virus. With the closure of hospitals and education centers, and the mass emigration of medical professionals, the Commonwealth can offer little resistance against this easily transmitted virus. Despite the odds, Puerto Rico has reported lower case numbers than their neighbors, with only 16 reported congenital defects associated with the Zika virus, (Branswell, Helen). This lower figure, in contrast to their northern partner, is difficult to believe—the United States had 140 cases from January to June of 2017 alone, (CDC). Puerto Rico is responding defensively in an effort to time of economic and health crisis.
In this single act of defiance, it is evident that Puerto Rico is in desperate need. With unemployment rates rising and nearly half of the population living below the poverty line, the Commonwealth is relying solely on their chief method of income, tourism. The threat of disease and poverty ever-presence, these United States citizens are demanding a voice within their country. The right to vote, to medical aid, and to government assistance, should be guaranteed despite their lack of statehood. Statehood may not be the right choice for Puerto Rico, and as only 23% of its residents have voted, the answer is not yet clear. However, it is apparent that the United States Congress owes Puerto Rico their survival and representation as both citizens and residents of the United States of America.
Allen, Greg. NPR. SOS: Puerto Rico Is Losing Doctors, Leaving Patients Stranded.
March 12, 2016
Branswell, Helen. Stat News. ‘They’re just hiding’: Experts say Puerto Rico may be
underreporting Zika-affected births. April 18, 2017.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economy at a Glance: Puerto Rico. June 20, 2017.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2017 Case Counts in the US. June 21,
Rappleye, Emily. Becker’s Hospital CFO Report. Power cut off at Puerto Rico hospital
that owes $4M. March 11, 2016.
Robles, Frances. The New York Times. Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis Claims Another
Casualty: Its Schools. May 10, 2017.