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Puerto Ricans Vote to Become 51st US State

Puerto Ricans voted to seek statehood on June 11, 2017. However, the U.S. territory is struggling with a high level of debt and an economic recession.
Puerto Ricans voted to seek statehood on June 11, 2017. However, the U.S. territory is struggling with a high level of debt and an economic recession.
Puerto Ricans Vote to Become 51st State, But Debt Crisis Intensifies
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People living in the American territory of Puerto Rico have voted to become a U.S. state. However, the vote does not have the force of law.

Only 23 percent of Puerto Rican voters took part in the referendum.

Of those who did vote, about 500,000 chose statehood. About 7,500 chose independence and 6,700 voted to remain a territory.

People who live on the Caribbean island are U.S. citizens, but they cannot vote in presidential elections. They have one congressional representative to the United States Congress who has limited voting rights.

Puerto Rico, a large island in the Caribbean Sea is a U.S. territory.
Puerto Rico, a large island in the Caribbean Sea is a U.S. territory.

The island also has its own legislature with a Senate and a House of Representatives.

The territory’s governor Ricardo Rossello said of the vote, “In any democracy, the expressed will of the majority that participates in the electoral process always prevails.”

Sunday’s vote on the issue of statehood was the fifth of its kind.

People on the island also voted in 2012 to seek statehood.

Puerto Rico struggles with its financial problems

The vote took place as Puerto Rico seeks protection from its creditors who hold its large public debt.

Peter Hakim is a former president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy research group on the Americas. He said the vote is not too meaningful because of low participation.

He says competing political parties on the island have called for something other than statehood.

The Popular Democratic Party wants Puerto Rico to remain a territory while the Puerto Rican Independence Party wants the island to become a separate country.

Hakim says the vote takes place as the island faces a serious crisis.

“Puerto Rico’s in the midst of a severe economic and, in many respects, social crisis with large-scale emigration toward the United States.”

He says poor supervision of the Puerto Rican economy and government is partly to blame for its economic situation.

He says the island’s current status is in, what he calls, the “undefined zone” in which it is neither a state nor a country.

“My guess in the end (is) that Puerto Rico would probably be better off if it did become a state.”

Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income tax so the territory does not receive as much federal money as states do. But, the people do pay Social Security and some other U.S. taxes. This causes some people to believe that the island would be better off as a state.

However, Puerto Rico’s debt crisis continues to harm its economic growth and ties to the U.S. The economy has been in recession for more than 10 years.

Puerto Rico says it cannot pay back its more than $70 billion debt. The territory also owes its retirement payment plan, or pension, about $50 billion dollars.

Last month, Governor Rosello refused to agree to measures demanded by creditors to make payments on the island’s bonds. That started a process for Puerto Rico to seek legal protection from its creditors through a form of bankruptcy. However, the territory is barred from the kind of legal bankruptcy that U.S. cities and towns can seek.

It is unclear how long Puerto Rico’s debt negotiations will take.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Victor Beattie reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

referendum – n. an event in which the people of a county, state, etc., vote for or against a law that deals with a specific issue : a public vote on a particular issue

emigration – n. to leave a country to live somewhere else

participate v. to be involved with others in doing something: to take part in an activity or event with others

prevail v. to defeat an opponent especially in a long or difficult contest

midst n. the period of time when something is happening or being done

status n. the official position of a person or thing according to the law

zone n. an area that is different from other areas in a particular way

bonds – n. debt securities in which creditors agree to provide money to a company or government in exchange for regular interest payments and full repayment after a set amount of time