By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
CHARLOTTE — For the fourth time in nearly five decades, Puerto Ricans will be asked to go to the polls and decide their island’s fate.
A referendum on Nov. 6 will ask residents if they wish to continue their current status as an unincorporated commonwealth of the United States, become an American state or become fully independent.
Puerto Rico first came under U.S. control as a spoil of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and has been a commonwealth ever since.
“Puerto Rico has 114 years under the American flag, and I think it’s time for us to become first-class citizens,” said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, the first U.S. mayor born in Puerto Rico and the first Hispanic to hold that position. “Either U.S. citizens or first-class citizens of an independent Puerto Rican republic,” he told Florida Watchdog in a telephone interview.
“In our case, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that you can have second-class American citizens,” said Ferre, nephew of the former Puerto Rican Gov. Rico Luis A. Ferré.
“The second-class citizen cannot vote for president and cannot have representation in the legislative body in the United States Congress. That is the current situation of 3.7 million U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico,” the Democrat said.
Ferre said that for practical and moral reasons, Puerto Ricans had to define the status that has remained uncertain for more than 100 years.
“On the vote in Puerto Rico, I think the people will keep the current relationship as commonwealth,” Puerto Rico Sen. Eduardo Bhatia told Florida Watchdog while attending the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
“I’m going to vote that way and that’s my game. But there are people in Puerto Rico who think differently,” he said. “We have 4 million Puerto Ricans in the United States and a large concentration found in central Florida.”.
The Democratic Party platform, being crafted this week at the DNC, is widely expected to address the Puerto Rican issue in an amendment, clarifying that the president will support a congressional vote over the status of the island, according to Puerto Rico Decide.
At last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Puerto Rico received a burst of national attention, thanks in part to speeches by Gov. Luis Fortuño and his wife Lucé Vela Gutierrez.
Voters from Puerto Rico participate in both party primaries for president, but they are barred from casting votes in the general election.
“I think this is an opportunity to solve that problem. I would first vote for staying a commonwealth and my second option would be becoming a state,” Ferre said.
He also told Florida Watchdog that Puerto Rico remains a very poor island, and any big changes in tax policy would adversely affect the economy of the region.
“It’s a very poor island and we must look for solutions to this problem, especially looking at how we don’t have full freedom as citizens,” said the former Mayor.
He added that Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona and Nevada experienced strong economic growth when they became states, and he is optimistic it could happen again.
“This is what could happen to Puerto Rico if it were to become a U.S. state,” said Ferre.
Bhatia, who also was executive director of Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C., office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, said it was a shame that the governor of Fortuño is focusing his campaign on Republican ideas like eliminating the national Affordable Care Act.
“The case of Puerto Rico has been discussed for more than 100 years in Washington and in many places. It’s time you put an end to this discussion and to respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico,” said Bhatia. “The important thing is that we have mutual decision.”
In political terms, the former mayor said Democrats would benefit most from the vote because of Puerto Ricans’ affinity for more progressive policies.
“The majority of Puerto Ricans in Florida and New York are Democrats, but nonetheless we have Republican governors. My uncle was one of them and the current governor, Luis Fortunio, is one,” said Bhatia. “But I definitely favor the Democrats over the Republicans.”
Puerto Rico also had referendums related to territorial status in 1967, 1993 and 1998. If the majority of the plebiscite vote of Nov. 6 decides to change Puerto Rico’s status, the next step would be a bill introduced into Congress.
That request would have to be approved by the House, the Senate and then be confirmed by the president in a bill of law.
Interview with Puerto Rican Senator Eduardo Bhatia:
Contact Marianela Toledo at Toledo.Marianela@gmail.com
Florida Bureau Chief Yaël Ossowski translated this article.