Actress and activist Rosie Perez was asked in a recent interview how she felt about the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. “Puerto Ricans are United States citizens,” she pointed out, “and I think that the issue of statehood or independence needs to be addressed and needs to be resolved. And right now, on the island, the majority of people want statehood. Why isn’t that addressed? Why is that not respected?”
Perez didn’t reference any political candidate or any specific event, but she might have been thinking of the 2012 referendum in which 54% of voters said they did not want to continue in their current territorial relationship. A second question on the ballot asked — regardless of the voter’s choice for the first question — what status they preferred from the status options which are possible under the U.S. Constitution. On that question, more than 61% of voters chose statehood.
Funding has been set aside for a final plebiscite, the first federally-funded and sponsored status referendum in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, has proposed that this referendum be a straight up or down vote on statehood, like the votes that brought Alaska and Hawaii into the union in the mid 20th century. Others have suggested, as Perez seems to, that a vote between statehood and independence should be the form of the referendum.
Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla promised to hold the referendum in 2016, but his party was unable to agree on wording for the ballot. The governor’s party, known as the “commonwealth” party, wanted to include “enhanced commonwealth” on the ballot. However, the legislation providing for the new referendum specifically says that all status options must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In earlier referenda, the “enhanced commonwealth” option was included and sometimes won. Congress refused to honor those votes because that option was and is unconstitutional. The Department of Justice confirmed this position again with an amicus brief in a recent Supreme Court Case. The requirement to include only those options that are allowed by the U.S. constitution apparently prevents the current Puerto Rico government from holding the referendum, which will be paid for by the federal government.
There was no time limit specified in the legislation setting aside funds for another vote.
Rosie Perez is a former host for the popular television talk show The View, appeared in the film Do the Right Thing (among others), and has been nominated for an Academy Award. She is a dancer and choreographer, but is also known as a community activist and served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.