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Puerto Rico Referendum Approves U.S. Statehood for 1st Time, But Results Show Divided Views

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For the first time in Puerto Rico’s history, a majority of the island’s voters have supported a non-binding referendum to become a full U.S. state. The measure will require approval from the U.S. Congress, but President Obama has said he will respect the vote. Obama made the same promise last year when he visited the island, becoming the first sitting U.S. president in half a century to do so. If Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state, its residents will have the right to vote in all U.S. elections, but will also have to start to pay federal taxes. We speak to Juan González, Democracy Now! co-host and New York Daily News columnist. [includes rush transcript]

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Video squareStoryJun 15, 2011In Nod to Latino Voters, Obama Makes Historic Visit to Puerto Rico Ahead of 2012 Elections
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! co-host Juan González is home, recuperating from back surgery. Juan, I wanted to ask you about Puerto Rico. For the first time in Puerto Rico’s history, a majority of the island’s voters supported a non-binding referendum to become a full U.S. state, the measure requiring approval from the U.S. Congress, but President Obama has said he will respect the vote. He made the same promise last year when he visited the island, become the first sitting U.S. president in half a century to do so.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because when I ran for president, I promised to include Puerto Rico, not just on my itinerary, but also in my vision of where our country needs to go. And I’m proud to say that we’ve kept that promise, too. First of all, we’ve addressed the question of political status. In March, a report from our Presidential Task Force on Puerto Rican Status provided a meaningful way forward on this question, so that the residents of the island can determine their own future. And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking in Puerto Rico last year. Juan González, talk about the significance of the vote that took place and what President Obama has said about respecting the vote.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think that the significance is that Puerto Rico is still grappling with its status as a—as the last major colony of the United States, but—and this referendum is just another step along the road, but it’s not quite as clear-cut as the press reports are making it out to be. You know, Puerto Rico has a very convoluted relationship politically with the United States, and so the parties there operate a little differently.

First of all, the amazing thing that—once again, record turnouts in Puerto Rico: 85 percent of the people voted, much higher than in the United States. And for those of you who worry about long lines, in Puerto Rico, the day before the election is a holiday, the day of the election is a holiday, and the day after the election is a holiday. So it’s a three-day holiday, election time, in Puerto Rico, so it gives people plenty of time to organize and turn out their votes.

But the results here on the referendum are double-edged. On the one hand, the referendum was in two stages this time. This was not authorized by Congress. This is, in essence, a preference vote of the people of Puerto Rico, sending a message to Congress, but Congress has no responsibility to abide by it in any way. The first part of the amendment said, “Are you satisfied with the current status, or do you want a change in status?” And in that part of the—in that part, the change—those who wanted the change won decisively, and 900,000 people, about 54 percent of those who were voting, said that they wanted a—they were not satisfied with the current status.

But then, there was a second stage, which said, “Which status would you prefer?” And there were—in essence, the choices were statehood, which has always been a choice on these referendums, a new definition called free—a “sovereign free associated state,” and not the commonwealth that now exists, but some nebulous new entity called “sovereign free associated state,” or independence. So there were three choices. And you had about 800,000 people voted for statehood, and 437,000 voted for this free associated sovereign state, but another 468,000 cast blank ballots, and then you had 72,000 voted for independence. So when the reports are telling you that statehood won, statehood won a majority of those who cast a choice, but there was a huge number who voted no, because the Commonwealth Party, the existing Commonwealth Party in Puerto Rico, opposed the way that the pro-statehood governor had prepared the referendum, and so it urged its members to cast blank ballots. So there were actually four choices that were made there. There was those who went for statehood, those who went for the new free associated republic—or, I’m sorry, free associated state with sovereignty, those who went for the old commonwealth, and those who went for independence. So, the independence people—I mean, the statehood people say, for the first time, statehood has gotten a majority in any of these referendums, but the—those on the other side say, no, when you add up free associated states, the blank ballots and [inaudible], they overwhelmingly defeated statehood.

To throw another wrinkle into the whole situation, the pro-statehood party which proposed this referendum was swept out of office. The governor was voted out of office. The majority in the Senate was voted out of office. The majority of all the city—the mayoralties were voted out of office of the statehood party. And it looks like the House, the Lower House of Puerto Rico, will also be of the Commonwealth Party. So, the new governor—because Luis Fortuño, the governor who tried to bring in the gas line, the governor who waged the battles against the students at the University of Puerto Rico, the governor who fought the labor unions, he’s out. And he was the one who proposed this referendum. So what exactly is going happen now as the new governor, who is hostile to even this process that Fortuño chose, will do with the results remains to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Juan, as you look at what’s happening in this country right now, what was galvanized by the protests of years ago, the mass May Day protests; then the young DREAMers sitting in in President Obama’s campaign offices and other senators’ and Congress members’; the UndocuBus that went to the Democratic National Convention, where people also got arrested demanding a fair, rational, comprehensive immigration policy—what do you think will happen now? There is supposedly a lot of soul searching within the Republican Party at this moment, because they were so roundly beaten. What is the shape of policy that you see? What are the issues that must be hit to make it a comprehensive, satisfactory policy in this country?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think what you’re seeing is—and I’m glad you mentioned the 2006 protests, because I said back then that that was the coming of age of the Latino community in the United States, that series of protests in the spring of 2006. And I’m willing to bet a month’s pay that in every one of these elections at the local level across the country this week, the young Latinos who were involved in organizing for these political campaigns, that many of them were participants in those protests and were really inspired, many, to get into political activity as a result of the immigrant rights protests of 2006, and the frustration that they have felt now as six years have passed and nothing has changed in immigration.

So I think that the key thing that is—hopefully, will come of this new coalition is not only a coalition of people of the [inaudible], those who were in the past, whether they were poor or union workers or women or African Americans, Latinos, Asians, that they—that not only have they now twice elected a president, but now that the policies that the new government, that our new administration and the Congress adopt, speak to those people and provide some of the basic needs and end the gap in—growing gap in income inequality, end the constant favoritism of government for the needs and interests of the corporations and the wealthy contributors. That’s going to be the big challenge. Will Obama, who moved to the left once again to get re-elected—what is he going to do now that he’s in the position of another four years?

AMY GOODMAN: Juan González, I want to thank you so much for being with us. And I also want to encourage folks, if you’ve ever been through what Juan is going through, back surgery with a herniated disc and a pinched nerve, send us what was most successful in helping you ease the pain at That’s Award-winning journalist Juan González, co-host of Democracy Now!, usually right here in the Democracy Now! studios, now recuperating from back surgery. Juan, thanks so much. Among Juan’s books, Harvest of Empire, and the film has just come out based on his book, called Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America. We wish you well, Juan. I hope to see you here next week.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about the next four years with President Obama and what these elections have meant with The Nation magazine’s John Nichols. He’s right now in Madison, Wisconsin. Stay with us.

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