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Will Puerto Rico Become America's 51st State?

Puerto Rico

Despite an overwhelming vote to make the island they call home the 51st state, Puerto Ricans are unsure that their political status will change anytime soon.

On Sunday, Puerto Ricans voted for U.S. statehood in a non-binding referendum and the outcome was fascinating. Ninety-seven percent of ballots cast were in favor of statehood, but on an island where voter participation usually hovers around 80 percent, only 23% of registered voters cast ballots. The voting stations that are accustomed to long lines were virtually empty on Sunday because Puerto Rico's two main opposition parties boycotted the vote.

Consequently, the low turnout may weaken Governor Ricardo Rosselló's case for statehood in Washington, where Puerto Rico is already seen as a low priority. Still, Governor Rosselló plans to use the victory to press Congress to Admit Puerto Rico to the union. 

"From today going forward, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore the voice of the majority of the American citizens in Puerto Rico," Rosselló said. 

Puerto Rico has been a territory since 1898, when the Island was acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War. This is the fifth time during Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States that Puerto Ricans voted on their future. However, this time the vote came after Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy. 

Marc Joffe, director of policy research for the California Policy Center, says that  "there's not going to be a big appetite to bring in a bankrupt state."

The truth is that Puerto Rico has undergone a recession for almost a decade. The debt in Puerto Rico is now $74 billion – which equals about $20,000 per person living on the island. The unemployment rate is 11.5% which is much higher than the 4.3% that makes up the U.S. average, and the island has a 45% poverty rate.  But that's not all, more than 150 public schools are being closed due to the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland and home values are dropping dramatically. 

Many Puerto Ricans like 50-year-old Ana Velazquez, said Puerto Rico's economic problems were so great that they overshadowed other considerations, such as the language, culture and identity that could be lost if the island became a state. However, this past Sunday she arrived at the same conclusion as 8 of 10 Puerto Ricans living on the island: she did not vote. 

One thing is certain, the voters that did show up agree that Puerto Rico needs the United States now more than ever.

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