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Monday
Jun122017

What's next for Puerto Rico after vote for US statehood

Photodisc/Thinkstock(SAN JUAN) -- Puerto Rico's political status as a commonwealth, and an unincorporated territory of the United States, is unlikely to change any time soon despite the Caribbean island’s Sunday vote asking the U.S. Congress to make it the 51st state, some experts say.

The nonbinding referendum gave Puerto Ricans three options from which to choose, namely becoming a U.S. state, remaining a commonwealth or becoming an independent nation.

Puerto Ricans chose statehood with a whopping 97 percent of the vote, according to a tally by the wire service Reuters, though less than one quarter of Puerto Ricans bothered to participate, largely because people who favor remaining a commonwealth and those seeking independence from the United States sat out the vote in protest.

A vote undercut by low turnout

The overwhelming margin of victory in the nonbinding vote is undercut by the knowledge on the ground that Puerto Ricans are far more divided on the notion of becoming a U.S. state than the election would otherwise indicate, experts on the subject told ABC News.

Amilcar Antonio Barreto, an associate professor of Cultures, Societies and Global Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, estimated that, in reality, a larger sample size of opinion would give those who advocate statehood only a small margin of victory, with those who wish to remain a commonwealth getting slightly less than 50 percent, and the number of those seeking total independence getting a single-digit percentage of the vote.

Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, offered a similar estimate, and said that these divisions are well known to Puerto Ricans.

"If this result is brought before Congress, the results will be heavily undercut by the reality that many people didn't vote," Vargas-Ramos said.

Palmira Rios, director of the Graduate School of Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, said that while there was palpable debate across the island today in the wake of the vote – much of it on radio and televisions shows – it’s worth noting that the struggle for statehood is gaining ground among many residents.

"Of the three options, statehood is the only one that has steadily been growing in popularity for 50 years," Rios said.

Republicans unlikely to budge

Puerto Rican statehood would give the roughly 3.5 million residents a significant representation in the U.S. government, and that, beyond anything else, poses a major roadblock, the experts agreed.

Hunter College’s Vargas-Ramos estimated that Puerto Rico would have greater federal government representation than at least 22 other states because of population density, and would likely yield five members of the House of Representatives, in addition to two senators.

The bulk of them would likely be Democrats, he said.

"Maybe one of the five would be a Republican," Vargas-Ramos said, noting that some districts on the majority Roman Catholic island might vote Democratic because of economic issues, but still hold socially conservative views.

"Think Jim Webb," Vargas-Ramos said, referring to the moderate Democrat who served as senator for the state of Virginia, and ran a failed bid for his party's nomination in 2016.

Adding Puerto Rico to the United States would also bolster the case for Washington, D.C., to become a state, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, an unincorporated U.S. territory in the Caribbean.

Both of those, if given statehood, would likely vote Democratic as well, further disincentivizing the Republican-dominated U.S. government to consider Puerto Rico's bid, according to Vargas-Ramos.

Northeastern University’s Barreto told ABC News that "Congress is loath to touch the subject" because of politics, and called the outcome of a congressional vote "more predictable than a Roman Catholic Mass."

"The debate would start with a 'Thank you for your service,'" Barreto said, referring to Puerto Rico's housing of U.S. military bases. "Then it would be followed by questions about Puerto Rico's Spanish language and culture being incompatible by the Republicans, followed by push back that the debate had become Latin-phobic."

Barreto said that San Juan's government will push Congress to take the vote seriously but that is unlikely to happen.

"Congress is likely to ignore the results," he said.

Vargas-Ramos added that "Congress is unlikely to bring anything to vote unless they expect to get the outcome that they want."

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