Puerto Rico: The 51st State?

Puerto Rico could become the 51st state in the U.S. Last week, the House approved a bill that would give Puerto Ricans a chance to vote on whether the island should become a state, seek independence or retain its current commonwealth status. The measure now moves to the Senate for consideration. Host Michel Martin speaks to Univision Washington Correspondent Fernando Pizarro about the bill and its delicate cultural implications.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now back to this side of the Atlantic. Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States might be headed for a major change. A week ago, the House approved a bill that would give Puerto Ricans a chance to vote on whether the island should become a state, seek independence or retain its current commonwealth status. The bill now moved to the Senate for consideration.

Now this sounds like a simple question, but it is not. Just a decision to hold the vote sparked a furious reaction in some quarters. So we've called on Univision correspondent Fernando Pizarro to help explain the bill and what's at stake and why this is such an ongoing issue and he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. FERNANDO PIZARRO (Correspondent, Univision): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: This is a perennial topic of discussion on the island, why is that?

Mr. PIZARRO: This is a topic that comes back over and over again. Puerto Rico has held four votes in the past. The first one in 1967, then another one in 1991, 1993 and the last one in 1998. That was the last time there was congressional action, an actual vote on the floor to pass this. In the Senate, they actually passed a sense of the Senate, not a bill. But that prompted the last time Puerto Ricans voted on this. But this is a big issue (unintelligible) used to.

MARTIN: But why?

Mr. PIZARRO: Because we have to understand this in Puerto Rican political terms. Puerto Ricans identify themselves as Democrats and Republicans. However, we have to look within Puerto Rican politics. There are three major parties. Now a fourth one has been formed, though we're just going to touch on the ones in power right now. There's one which is the New Progressive Party, which is in power, holds the governorship and the nonvoting delegate here in Congress called the resident commissioner.

And then there is the popular Democratic Party and then the Independence Party, with this one, of course, their position is very clear. The New Progressive Party favors statehood. The popular Democratic Party wants commonwealth, things to stay the same or maybe an enhanced way of commonwealth. Now that the PNP, the New Progressive Party is in power, they've been pushing since the now governor was resident commissioner between 2004 and 2008, they've been pushing for Congress to promote a law again that would create another referendum.

MARTIN: Well, Puerto Rico is not the only entity that is debating its status. The District of Columbia, for example, has been in this perpetual debate because residents of the district, unlike those of Puerto Rico, pay federal income taxes. But like the residents of Puerto Rico, don't have representation in the Congress. So it's an issue, it's an ongoing issue there. The rallying cry here is taxation without representation. What's the issue in Puerto Rico? Why what's the sort of the driving force? And do you have any sense of what's the where's public opinion on this?

Mr. PIZARRO: Well, public opinion in Puerto Rico is fiercely divided on this. The last time there was a referendum, the none of the above option won. So that shows you that there's no clear majority. Of course, each party claims that there is a clear majority on this. But there is a national identity issue here at stake. If Puerto Rico became a state, it would be a political force to be reckoned with. It would have two senators and then up to six members of Congress.

However, how would people in the United States accept a state where the language, the priory language of government is not English? But then, Puerto Ricans themselves are very proud. When Puerto Rican politicians talk within -on TV, on the radio, they talk about the nation. They don't talk about Puerto Rico as a state or a territory.

And then there is an issue, the cultural identity. Puerto Rico has its own Olympic committee. They compete separately from the United States. So, you know, there are a lot of the issues at stake here that show, that still there are many people who prefer things to stay the way they are.

MARTIN: Well, why is there opposition to a vote? I mean, it seems to me if there is this level of disagreement about it, why not vote?

Mr. PIZARRO: Because, you know, the popular Democratic Party, which, you know, holds a big chunk of Puerto Rican politics, thinks that commonwealth is the right way to stay. They like, actually, they'd prefer another forum which is an enhanced commonwealth, which in Spanish is called associated state or free associated state in which they hold there is still, you know, they have an assembly, they hold they have a governor, but they have a looser tie to the United States and all the other 50 states.

MARTIN: And so what about stateside? What about on the mainland, as it were? First of all, would people who are of Puerto Rican descent, but who live on the mainland be eligible to vote? And what effect do you think that would have on the whole conversation? And what about in the Congress?

Mr. PIZARRO: If this vote over this bill actually were to be passed in the Senate, which is still a long shot, the approximately four million Puerto Ricans who will live in the States would be allowed to vote. But those would be Puerto Ricans who were born on the island. There was a move there was an amendment that was defeated last week to allow children of Puerto Ricans who were born in the United States, in the continental 50 states plus D.C. to vote, but that was defeated.

So, it is important. Four million here is about the same of the population on the island. So we're talking about 50 percent. The opinion of the Puerto Ricans here is less clear. But it would be equally important if the vote were to happen. However, the vote would be very complicated. This is a two-step referendum. The first one is to vote between - option one would be their present political status and a different political status.

If the different political status were to win, they would have a second referendum and that would have four options. Now, one is independence, the other one is free association and the other one is statehood. However...

MARTIN: I can't keep up with that. I'm sorry, I need a spreadsheet for all that. I'm sorry, I need a spreadsheet. But final question to you, Fernando, this speculation if Puerto Rico one of the reasons this is controversial in the mainland is that the speculation is that if Puerto Rico did get statehood or at least voting rights, the Democrats would be the big winners, despite the fact that the current governor is a Republican. So, do you think that that's true?

Mr. PIZARRO: I think there are some reasons to think that. Of course Republicans and opponents of this bill are pushing that option or pushing that position, that perception. However, as I said before, Puerto Rico would have more representatives than many, many states, including Connecticut, Iowa and a whole bunch of other states.

MARTIN: Fernando Pizarro covers Washington for Univision News. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios to try to help us unpack this very complicated story. Do keep us posted. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. PIZARRO: Thanks for having me.

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