Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló [official website, in Spanish], on Friday approved [press release, in Spanish] a law [text, PDF, in Spanish] to hold nonbinding referendum that would allow the US territory to vote on statehood. The referendum, to be held in June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood and independence/free association. Those in support of Puerto Rican statehood believe approving statehood could help the country restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. Functionally, if approved, Puerto Rican statehood would allow the state to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for bankruptcy. Rosselló called the vote “a civil rights issue” and said the US will have to “respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.” Though a US territory currently, Puerto Rico’s citizenry are denied many of the benefits provided to citizens in US states, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress is only allowed to vote in a House committee meeting in which the representative is a member.
For several years, Puerto Rico has been facing a severe financial, economic and social crisis. The territory has been suffering from a massive recession [BBC report] since 2006. Currently, the island is no longer able to service its public debt of around $71.5 billion. The Puerto Rican legislature passed a bill [JURIST report] in April that would allow the island territory to enter into a state of fiscal emergency and begin the negotiation process toward a one-year debt moratorium. However, the Puerto Rico Electronic Power Authority, a major player in the economic crisis, reached a deal [Bloomberg report] to restructure its debt in December. This deal is the first of many restructuring plans to alleviate the government’s debt. Last February the Puerto Rico Legislature passed a bill [text, PDF, in Spanish] that would restructure the island’s debt, which was then estimated to be $9 billion [JURIST report].