11/19/2013 05:27 pm ET

Protesters Demand 'Equality' For Puerto Rico

Courtesy of Res. Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi

Puerto Rican statehood supporters are trying to rekindle flagging interest in the issue one year after a referendum left the island’s political status unresolved.

Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi led a pro-statehood demonstration in Washington on Tuesday, joined by U.S. members of Congress from both sides of the political spectrum.

Framing the issue as a call for equality, Pierluisi of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party criticized the island’s colonial status.

“For 520 years, first under Spain and now under the United States, Puerto Rico has had a political status that is colonial in nature,” Pierluisi said. “Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens of the greatest democracy in history, but they do not have voting representation in the government that makes their national laws, and they’re often treated unequally under those laws… We seek the same rights and responsibilities as our fellow citizens in the 50 states -- nothing more and nothing less,” Pierluisi said.

The United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 during the Spanish-American war. In 1917, the U.S. government extended American citizenship to Puerto Ricans, along with military conscription.

Despite holding four plebiscites since 1967, Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth hasn’t changed. But statehood supporters seized on the results of the most recent referendum, held last year, to give new impetus to the issue.

The two-part referendum first asked whether Puerto Ricans were satisfied with their relationship with the United States. Dissatisfaction emerged victorious with 54 percent of the vote.

The second question asked whether voters wanted to became a U.S. state, an independent country, or a freely associated state -- a type of voluntarily limited independence in close association with the United States. Remaining a commonwealth wasn’t an option.

Statehood won the most votes, but Gov. Alejandro García Padilla -- then on the campaign trail -- urged commonwealth supporters to cast blank ballots on the second question in protest. Statehood won only 46 percent of the votes if the 480,000 blank ballots are taken into account.

Nevertheless, Pierluisi and his sympathizers interpret the non-binding referendum as a mandate for statehood.

“Both the president and the Congress should respond appropriately to the plebiscite results,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said at Tuesday’s demonstration. “The status quo is simply not acceptable. It deprives the people of Puerto Rico of the right to choose the leaders who make our laws -- an imperative right in any democracy.”

Pierluisi submitted legislation to Congress in May that would pose an up-or-down plebiscite asking Puerto Ricans whether they want to become a U.S. state. The bill outlines a process for admitting Puerto Rico if the referendum is successful.



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