Unpacking the Puerto Rican Statehood Vote: Colonial Dynamics and National Trends (OPINION)

Feb 24, 2021
4:43 PM

Puerto Rico governor and pro-statehood advocate Pedro Pierluisi (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Every so often, come election time in Puerto Rico, the misleadingly named, righ-twing “New Progressive Party” (PNP for its abbreviation in Spanish) calls on its constituents to vote in a non-binding plebiscite/referendum in favor of “statehood”, or annexation to the US as the 51st state of the Union, allegedly, in service of decolonization. A cursory glance at past plebiscite results usually portrays a pretty evenly divided electorate between those that favor statehood and those that would prefer the current “status” or a “more sovereign” political arrangement, along with some single-digit votes favoring independence. Incidentally, this vote often resembles the electoral distribution of votes afforded to the governor’s race.

On November 3, 2020, however, during the general election, a growing trend in electors favoring political parties that promote independence or some other arrangement was met with a plebiscite result of 52% of the willing electorate favoring “statehood” as the preferred political “status.” Evidencing this trend was the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), which augmented its electoral votes for governorship from its consistent 2-4% of the electorate to 13.72%, the center-left Citizens Victory Movement (MVC) that got 14.21% of the electorate and whose rank-and-file members are predominantly against statehood, and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), garnering a substantive 31.56% of the populace with its preferred “status” option being the status quo, or colonial rule.

Contrastingly, the PNP, which has maintained an electoral monopoly on the statehood “status” option for about 60 years, won the election with a comparatively embarrassing 32.93% of the electorate. What do the underlying electoral dynamics of the plebiscite really evidence? In summary, a lot, but something different than what PNP politicians would have you believe. Support for statehood has not increased in any obvious way in this electoral exercise. Yet, support for independence has increased to levels unseen for 70 odd years. To problematize and unpack these results, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: American colonialism.

Acquired as war booty in the Spanish American War, Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. via the Paris Accords of 1898 and underwent a series of institutional arrangements that allowed colonialism, or the unchecked political control and economic exploitation of the archipelago’s resources, to persist under American rule. Economically, Puerto Rico became subjected to higher import prices, a reality that forged patterns of unsustainable public bond emissions and massive tax breaks on intellectual property, all of which eventually snowballed overtime into a $73 billion debt. Austerity measures followed and were implemented despotically by the Congressional creation of the Fiscal “Junta,” further undermining the archipelago’s sustainability. Unable to challenge the “Junta” politically to rectify the economic effects of colonialism, unprecedented waves of migration continued, causing a “brain drain,” a diminishing tax base, and a perpetuation of the territory’s economic contraction. Given these colonially induced economic woes, several political trends standout that have helped define the dynamics of plebiscite politics in Puerto Rico.

Plebiscites in Puerto Rico: Colonial Developments Behind a Democratic Façade

A plebiscite, in democratic contexts, is an electoral mechanism by which polities or subsets of them consult the general public on their opinions regarding particularly pressing issues. As these exercises are generally birthed from struggles and concerns voiced avidly among civil society and are organized to legitimize or elevate said struggles to legal or constitutional stature, they often carry with them years of grassroots organization and sincere, substantive debate socialized among a polity’s populace. While they are generally organized when ruling elites feel that they can legitimize their stance on a particular political issue, they are not without political costs. Elites that do not comply with the results of a plebiscite may put their political career and/or their corresponding political projects at risk as they may portray themselves as antidemocratic.

Unlike this description, Puerto Rico’s routine plebiscites held on the island’s “status” issue are not nascent from grassroots movements. They do not involve any sincere and/or democratically oriented debate on behalf of annexationists/colonialists, and elites are not held accountable to the results; a reality that often skews results away from anything that resembles independence. Further defining the dynamics of plebiscite politics in Puerto Rico lay three additional trends.

The first one is that local political parties, recognizing the limitations of colonialism, have been traditionally organized around “status” positions, a reality that often makes electors assume that voting for a political party will automatically result in a change in the political “status,” or advance it to some extent. In this regard, it would be an error to completely disaggregate the electoral results of a plebiscite from local elections results.

The second trend is that given these widely socialized political beliefs that political partisanship is a reflection of one’s stance on colonialism, the PNP party has relied on plebiscites or other non-binding referendums to simply rally their political base come election time for short-term political gains.

Thirdly, no sincere or profound debates on Puerto Rico’s colonial woes are had by the hegemonic electoral political parties as they continue to conceive colonialism as an issue of political definition or “status,” rather than an issue of structural subjugation and economic exploitation. In other words, people who vote sincerely on their preferred “status” are not voting against colonialism per se, but rather on an institutional tweak that they think might afford them more rights under their present, colonial situation. In this sense, the structures of colonialism and the vested interests of American corporations and the billionaire class, many of which benefit PNP and PPD politicians after their tenure, go surprisingly unnoticed and are treated much like patriarchy or white supremacy are in the U.S.: as if they didn’t exist.

Those that vote in plebiscites in favor of statehood are generally motivated out of a mixture a) of fear of becoming independent given mixed results of sovereign Caribbean development, b) of some vague and misguided understanding that Puerto Rico would be better off under statehood and c) in many instances, to secure future employment with the party as public employees under PNP rule. Despite the plurality of electoral motivations, however, the PNP electorate is the only one that agrees on a plebiscite strategy and subsequently holds the party line in plebiscites.

Contrastingly, those who vote in favor of independence are the most divided electoral constituency participating in the plebiscite, as many are wary of participating in “colonial” elections or prefer to vote for other “status” options to impede the PNP from winning the plebiscite or local elections. Those of the first persuasion celebrate boycotts. Those of the second may vote in favor of the colonial “status” in a plebiscite or the PPD’s political project for short-term gains against the PNP. Unfortunately, this division skews and misrepresents the independence vote in plebiscites and the PIP’s political project alike.

Voters on the fence, however, if only provided the option of “statehood yes or no” (as established by the 2020 referendum), may likely vote for statehood because they think: a) it’s a longshot, as expressed by many of the PPD and PIP party heads, and/or b) anything that resembles independence or symbolically refutes U.S. imperialism could send the “wrong message” to Washington. The more statistically prevalent and growing trend, however, is abstention, thus benefiting the only party that agrees on a plebiscite strategy: the PNP. While the PNP might argue that the disparate results of the plebiscite and the local election prove that the statehood “movement” is growing and is much bigger than their party, this is highly unlikely. Pro-statehood “movements” or even voices outside of the PNP are virtually non-existent, with some very limited exceptions.

Despite what statehooders would have you believe, the only obvious electoral trends that we can rescue from the plebiscite when looking exclusively at the numbers are that

  1. The “majority vote” for statehood was dependent on a growing trend in electoral abstention and unity behind a strategy, thus providing them with a false and very slim majority, and
  2. That independence party projects and other left-wing parties that lean towards independence grew significantly in support.

However, when put in dialogue with the previously mentioned trends, another truth stands out: the PNP often uses plebiscites as a wedge issue to win the elections, knowing that abstention and having a unified strategy will deliver them favorable results. Consequently, the “pro-statehood” voice has become hegemonic in Washington, given their ability to win elections by exercising plebiscites. Through these very mechanisms, they are able to bolster their local legitimacy in Puerto Rico by cozying up to predatory U.S. politicians in need of the “Puerto Rican”’ vote. With this, U.S. politicians from Puerto Rican-heavy districts are provided the opportunity to give lip service to “decolonization” in exchange for campaign assistance to then kick the can down the road another four years. Additionally, the PNP, in the context of using plebiscite politics to bolster legitimacy, is provided with a clientelistic tool through which they use access to public funds to continue to win elections despite lackluster support for its political project.

The economic downturn that induced increased migration to the U.S. as well the PNP’s and PPD’s history of corruption scandals and their connection to Washington’s politics have all weighed down on the Puerto Rican populace, and many are getting fed up. Consequently, the proliferation of diasporic movements and others are rising up to help the island-nation recover from its colonial hangover. But these efforts, like those in any decolonization process in the past, require allyship from Americans to not only support the emancipation of Puerto Rico but also to absolve their country from its present colonial sin.


Jenaro Alberto Abraham II is a diasporican Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science at Tulane University. He tweets from @JenaroAbraham.