Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite: Self-Determination or Smokescreen?

Puerto Rico Plebiscite BELatina Latinx

The governorship of Puerto Rico has announced a non-binding plebiscite on territorial determination that will coincide with government elections on the island on November 3rd.

Wanda Vázquez announced Saturday that Puerto Ricans will have to decide whether they want to become a full-fledged state and its new governing party on the same day.

After the scandal that deposed former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and in the midst of an economic and social crisis marked by natural disasters and now by the coronavirus pandemic, the island’s government seems to be resorting to political manipulation to avoid a transition desired by most Puerto Ricans.

Being a commonwealth, Puerto Rican citizens cannot exercise their right to vote in U.S. presidential elections and have no representation in Congress. According to Bloomberg, if the 3.2 million residents of the island decide to make Puerto Rico a state, they would be entitled to two senators and five representatives in the House.

However, although Vázquez assured that the decision has the support of the White House, President Donald Trump has made clear from the beginning his antagonism to Puerto Rico becoming a state, especially because of the Democratic tendency of most of its citizens.

If they choose to become a state, the vote of Puerto Ricans must have the full support of the U.S. Congress, which has a strong conservative majority in the Senate.

In 2018, President Trump told journalist Geraldo Rivera that his answer was an “absolute no” on the question of Puerto Rico statehood. In view of his dubious reelection in November, this position is unlikely to change.

Following Vázquez’ announcement Saturday, a White House official said: “The Trump Administration is proud of the support given to the people of Puerto Rico to respond to and recover from the 2017 hurricanes, recent earthquakes, and COVID-19. The first priority for all Puerto Rico leaders should be getting their financial house in order.”

According to what Puerto Rican journalist and founder of Latino Rebels, Julio Ricardo Varela, said on Twitter, this is a desperate political move by Vázquez. 

“She is running for governor (running for the first time too since she is a non-elected gov) and she isn’t even her party’s nominee yet. She has to win her nomination first and so the plebiscite illusion happens,” he explained.

It seems then that this is a strategic smokescreen that paves the way for the ruling conservative party (PNP) to maintain control of the island, even after the scandal of #RickyRenuncia that made clear its radical right-wing positions. 

“Instead of putting Puerto Rico first, [the PNP] is following a playbook that will never succeed in anything. And it’s all because they are a dying political party on the island,” concluded Varela, assuring that most citizens on the island believe that the territorial relationship they live with the United States is colonial, a mindset that leaks into the political dynamics in the worst possible way.