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Moment that mattered: Puerto Rico votes in a statehood referendum

I’ve spent more than 40 years working towards equality for Puerto Ricans, so this non-binding referendum was both a major step for the island and for me personally. A total of 54 percent of voters rejected the current political status of Puerto Rico as a US commonwealth. And therefore whatever consent we have given the US in the past to rule us as a commonwealth has been withdrawn. The Declaration of Independence is based on the idea of government by the consent of the governed. The US government no longer has our consent.

I founded the Puerto Rico Statehood Students Association when I was a teenager. I’m a child of the Vietnam conflict and when I was 13 I became concerned I was going to be drafted into a war by a president in whose election I did not participate and by a Congress in which Puerto Rico does not have full voting representation [the territory has a single non-voting resident commissioner in Congress]. In that war, Puerto Rico experienced more casualties per capita than any state of the union. We are patriotic and proud of our role helping to defend the United States but it’s a conundrum that we’re equal in war but unequal in peace.

Puerto Ricans are full US citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections. We have been US citizens for 96 years so there’s virtually not a single person in Puerto Rico who isn’t a natural-born citizen of the United States. You’re meant to have no taxation without representation yet we pay most US federal taxes.

The first question of the plebiscite asked voters if they were happy with the status quo and 54 percent said no. The second question asked voters to choose their preferred alternative and a supermajority of 61 percent chose statehood [a move for Puerto Rico to become the fifty first state of the US]. The official policy of the people of Puerto Rico is to support statehood so now we’re waiting for the White House and Congress to respond to our vote against colonialism.

The reason many people abstained on the second question [nearly half a million voters left the ballot blank, meaning statehood received 61 percent of votes but only 45 percent of possible votes; anti-statehood groups are claiming this means a majority of Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood] is because it’s non-binding and a lot of people have doubts whether Congress would act on a vote made by Puerto Rico.

I don’t anticipate the US government acting soon to make Puerto Rico a state. Congress only responds to crises. But once more people understand the vote against the status quo it will start a moral crisis because it’s the first time the US has governed US citizens without their consent. It’s a civil rights issue. We need to get better organised so we can sell our case to the American people.

The culture of Wales is different to that of England but they choose to associate politically because of their commonalities. Boston is different to Texas and you have native French speakers in Louisiana – so why not have a Spanish-speaking state? We will get statehood one day. I’ve been fighting for it since I was 14 years old, and we’re getting closer.

Kenneth McClintock was Secretary of State for Puerto Rico until January 2013. 

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