As Hawaii marks the 54th anniversary of its statehood this month, we're reminded that the future of one of the country's territories remains in flux. Last November, Puerto Ricans voted in a plebiscite—the fourth of its kind since 1967—in favor of statehood for the first time ever.
Despite the results, conversations about the future of what some call America's last colony have petered out. Congress held a hearing on Puerto Rico's status at the beginning of this month, with senators calling for a change, any change.
"After 115 years, it is clearly time for Puerto Rico to determine what political path it will take," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said at the hearing, referring to 1898, the year Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. "The current status undermines our nation's moral standing around the world."
What's keeping Puerto Rico in political limbo?
While more voting is sure to come, lawmakers from the island and the mainland have yet to figure out what to ask Puerto Ricans on the ballot. The Senate committee leaders read last year's results as Puerto Ricans rejecting the current status, but some question the validity of the voting outcome. The first question on the ballot asked voters if they favored U.S. territory status; 54 percent said they didn't. The second asked voters to choose from three options: statehood, independence, or sovereign free association—a status that would give Puerto Rico more autonomy than it currently has.
Sixty-one percent chose statehood, but 26 percent of voters left the ballot blank. Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla believes this shrank support for statehood to 44 percent. He calls for something like the current commonwealth status, not full-fledged statehood, but at this month's hearing he didn't provide details on how that would work.
Meanwhile, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the island's nonvoting member of Congress and a statehood supporter, is pushing for a federally commissioned "yes" or "no" vote to decide Puerto Rico's future once and for all, just like the one for Hawaii 54 years ago. Pierluisi's party, the New Progressive Party, filed a lawsuit this summer against Padilla, claiming the governor was trying to dissuade lawmakers on the mainland from supporting statehood.
Wyden says an "enhanced commonwealth" such as the one Padilla is proposing is not an option. Padilla counters that neither is statehood, saying that last year's vote was "an electoral process rigged in favor of statehood" because it didn't include a range of different options, a process known as self-determination. While he hasn't said as much, under Padilla's standards, the ballot that helped determine Hawaii's future in 1959 would be considered a fraud.
Although it doesn't matter now, the Hawaiian plebiscite vote was once questioned too. "It pretended that Hawaii did not have to go through a self-determination," says Jonathan Osorio, a Hawaiian studies professor at University of Hawaii (Manoa). "We were not given the full range of options."
U.S. lawmakers are anxious to redefine Puerto Rico's status. But the tug-of-war between its leaders, combined with uncertainty about past state-commissioned votes and fidgeting over potential federal ones, suggest that the island will have to keep waiting.
This article appears in the August 27, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.