Since the November 6 status plebiscite held in Puerto Rico, observers have been trying to make sense of what happened. Initially surprised by the results, an explosion of commentary focused on the fact that 61 percent of Puerto Ricans backed statehood for the island. But after some noted that over 400,000 did not answer the status question, many became convinced that statehood had lost. Writers now reasoned that even if statehood was the preferred alternative of those who actually voted, if one factored the blank ballots into the total count, the combined majority chose options other than statehood.
Although the question of by which margin Puerto Ricans chose statehood is not irrelevant, it misses the point. The most important thing that happened in the plebiscite is that for the first time in 114 years, the people of Puerto Rico clearly rejected the status quo by a 54-46 margin. And, equally surprising, that a vast majority of voters supported a non-territorial option as the best way forward.
While 54 percent may seem modest for such a momentous decision, in the context of Puerto Rican politics, it is of great significance.
For one, in voting against the territory twice, Puerto Ricans left behind the deep-seated fears that have driven status politics for over a century. In the first four decades of U.S. occupation, when U.S. sugar interests backed by the military controlled the economy and mostly American governors ruled with a direct line to the police department, the fear was of being persecuted or killed if you supported independence. This state of affairs reached its nadir in the 1937 Ponce Massacre where police killed 18 and wounded over 200 unarmed civilians in a peaceful march; and in the infamous "Gag Law" of 1948 which made it illegal to display the Puerto Rican flag, intone patriotic songs, and speak about or fight for the island's independence.
While the fear of retaliation for separatist activities has never totally disappeared, a different kind of fear emerged in the 1950s: that of losing any benefits you may have accrued from the island's post WWII economic boom. Facing mounting criticism for its colonial policies, the U.S. embarked on a plan to reduce the island's poverty and provide for limited self-government. For many, the results were tangible as direct American rule ended, the sugarocracy was dismantled, and billions of corporate investment helped lift thousands of people out of extreme poverty. Through not everyone benefited -- a significant number remained poor and thousands were "encouraged" to migrate and instead be poor in New York -- the relative prosperity that ensued made most afraid of rocking the territorial boat.
In rejecting the status quo, Puerto Ricans are then also vetoing the dubious logic by which basic democratic principles are traded for some economic rewards. This time, voters decided that even if this is a colonial relationship with benefits, the unincorporated territory doctrine is, in itself, unacceptable. Not only because, as pro-statehood activists would argue, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections, do not have a voting Congressional delegation, and are not fully protected by the constitution. But also because according to U.S. law, Puerto Ricans have no way out of this untenable situation unless Congress says so.
At its most immediate, the Puerto Rican "no" is furthermore calling attention to the self-evident fact that things are just not working. Even after a century under the American flag, Puerto Rico has less than half the per capita of the nation's poorest state, Mississippi; a murder rate nearly twice as high as Mexico's; and not a single major institution free of corruption. Equally telling, from 2000 to 2010, a whopping 500,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island for the United States seeking better living conditions. And two years into the new decade, the exodus is showing no signs of stopping.
Given current political conditions, however, this call for change will mostly fall on deaf ears. The newly elected governor, Alejandro García Padilla, leads the pro-status quo Popular Democratic Party and has already stated that he has no plans to act on the results. Moreover, the only people less motivated than García Padilla are in the U.S. government. As a candidate, President Obama promised Puerto Ricans to help by "fixing" the status. But as president, he commissioned a report that only promised to "consider" what Puerto Ricans had to say.
If the past is of any indication, Congress members are just as likely to be unenthusiastic. To start, both statehood and independence transitions will cost money, pushing not a few over an even bigger financial cliff. Furthermore, the House of Representatives, with a Republican majority still recovering from a bruising election in which Latinos played an outsized role, probably has zero desire to enable a process that could end in Puerto Rico becoming a state: A place inhabited by nearly 3.7 million Latinos who will vote Democratic for decades to come and be worth at least seven electoral votes.
But, even if absolutely nothing happens right away, the 2012 plebiscite stands as an important turning point. Puerto Ricans are no longer afraid to reject and outdated and undemocratic policy. And as with other Latino concerns like immigration, sooner or later, even the hard of hearing will get the message: no means no. Puerto Rico's status is an issue whose time has finally come.