Puerto Rico, a US cousin, mulls its status and identity

“How pretty is the flag, is the flag of Puerto Rico!”

The salsa lyric blasts out of a little ice cream stand outside the Capitol building, so loud and catchy one barely notices the US flag flying alongside Puerto Rico’s banner atop the seaside legislative palace.

Torn between their American citizenship and Puerto Rican pride, the Caribbean island’s inhabitants will express themselves on the complicated relationship with Washington on Sunday.

A referendum proposing “the immediate decolonization of Puerto Rico” has sparked controversy and is likely to be boycotted by the opposition.

Even though the bankrupt island is being thrashed by a crisis of historic proportions, Ricardo Rossello — who took office as governor in January promising to make Puerto Rico the 51st American state — doesn’t want to lose time.

Staggering under more than $70 billion in debt, the US territory has just declared the biggest bankruptcy ever by a local US government, placing the island’s finances under a largely US-appointed control board.

Not the best way to persuade Washington to welcome Puerto Rico into the Union, say critics who also complain about the cost of financing a referendum that is not binding on the United States.

Proponents of independence and advocates of the status quo alike dismiss it as a farce. But for Puerto Rico’s young governor, the referendum has everything to do with the crisis.

“The reason the control board exists is because Puerto Rico is in an inequitable relationship with the federal government,” says Christian Sobrino, Rossello’s top economic adviser.

“If Puerto Rico were a state, or if it were an independent country, there would be no opening for such a junta.”

– A special status –

A former Spanish colony taken over by the United States at the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rico has enjoyed broad political autonomy since 1952 as a commonwealth or “free associated state” of the United States.

As US citizens and often proudly so, Puerto Ricans can enter the United States freely and its economy is closely tied to the mainland.

But they don’t have the right to vote in US presidential elections; instead, they cast ballots for their own government. They are represented in the US Congress by a resident commissioner, who has a voice but not a vote. Washington has the ultimate say over the territory’s affairs.

During the last referendum in 2012, a majority said they were dissatisfied with the current status. But nothing changed under the previous Popular Democratic Party, and Rossello and his New Progressive Party want to try again.

In the streets of San Juan, one sees the occasional poster in support of statehood, but few other signs of public interest in the referendum, the fifth on the island’s status since the 1950s.

Walking past a sun-splashed government building, Deborah Martinez says she intends to vote for statehood, because she wants to be able to vote for president.

Martinez said she would vote against Donald Trump, whose health reforms and cutbacks on food aid for the poor will hit hard on an island where poverty is endemic.

“We should have the right to the same options as residents of the United States,” says the 37-year-old Martinez, who is unemployed despite a degree in marketing.

She lived for a year in Texas and speaks English well, but she is in the minority in Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the dominant language and the sight of an American flag is rare.

The Puerto Rican flag, which is omnipresent, shares the red, white and blue colors of the American flag, but its stripes are broader and a single star is emblazoned on it.

It is waved at student protests, painted on walls, and the emblem is even used to decorate cigars sold to tourists.

“We are a colony,” huffs Dafne Elvira, a 52-year-old artist as she escapes a heat wave in the shade of a plaza in Old San Juan.

The crisis, she adds, has made Puerto Rico’s unequal relationship with the United States even more “humiliating.”

But Elvira intends to boycott the referendum, calling it “a circus” that will lead nowhere.

Hector Luis Acevedo, a former mayor of San Juan and a supporter of the status quo, says he won’t be participating either.

Acevedo, 69, served in the US military, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve. His father fought for the United States in World War II.

But he doesn’t want Puerto Ricans to lose their special status.

“Here school is taught in Spanish! Here our poets compose in Spanish! This is a people that does not want to disappear and yet wants to be loyal to the United States,” Acevedo says.