Puerto Rico: status vote set as crime, unemployment rise
On Dec. 29 Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuño signed a measure into law mandating a plebiscite on the island's status, to be held on Nov. 6, the same day as the gubernatorial election. Voters will be asked two questions: whether they want to maintain the current political status, which is subject to the territorial clause of the US Constitution (Article IV, section 3); and whether as a permanent alternative they would prefer independence, incorporation into the US as a state, or the continuation of a "free associated state" status but no longer under the territorial clause. The referendum, which reflects the recommendations of a US presidential task force on Puerto Rico, is nonbinding; any changes would have to be approved by the US Congress and president.
The results of three previous plebiscites, in 1967, 1993 and 1998, were inconclusive. But opponents of the current status—principally Gov. Fortuño's New Progressive Party (PNP), which is close to the US Republican Party, and the nationalist Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP)—expect that both statehood and independence supporters will vote "no" on the first question and that this will force the US government to confront the status question. The Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which is close to the US Democratic Party and wants to maintain the status quo, is critical both of the plebiscite and of the decision to hold it the same day as the gubernatorial election—which is expected to benefit Fortuño when he runs for a second term. PPD vice president Héctor Ferrer told the Spanish wire service EFE on Dec. 29 that the plebiscite was a maneuver to divert attention from problems like the rising crime rate and the increase in unemployment. (Primera Hora, Guaynabo, Dec. 29; EFE, Dec. 29)
With a population of just 3.7 million, this year Puerto Rico had more than 130,000 homicides, a record number. Unemployment has risen to 15.2%, according to official records, while unemployment among youths from 16 to 29 is now at 30%. The situation was aggravated by the imposition of an $800 tuition surcharge for students at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), the island's main public institution of higher education. The increase in fees, backed by Fortuño, forced thousands of students out of the school into the job market. (Prensa Latina, Dec. 31; Prensa Latina, Dec. 27)
Militant strikes by UPR students in 2010 and 2011 forced some concessions from Fortuño but were not enough to stop the $800 surcharge. However, student organizations and unions representing UPR professors and other employees won an unexpected victory on Dec. 12 when a San Juan court ruled that the university had to allow public access to information on the real estate holdings it has accumulated since its founding in 1903. While claiming that it was unable to function without the tuition surcharge, the UPR has refused to provide allow public scrutiny of its assets. As of Dec. 13 the court had not ruled on whether the university would also have to divulge information on assets other than real estate. (Noticias 24/7, Puerto Rico, Dec. 13; Adital, Brazil, Dec. 13)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 1.
See our last post on Puerto Rico.