A woman leaves a voting booth as Puerto Ricans head to the polls on Sunday to decide whether they want their struggling U....

Puerto Ricans vote for statehood amid economic turmoil

A majority of Puerto Ricans voted in support of statehood in a nonbinding referendum on Sunday, according to early polling results.

The validity of the referendum, which came amid an economic crisis that has forced the island into bankruptcy and caused the ailing government to install grim austerity measures, has been challenged by opposition parties due to a low turnout of 23 percent.

The referendum, the territory’s fifth in 50 years, offered voters three choices: statehood, independence, or a continuation of the current territorial status. The U.S. Congress will ultimately decide whether to ratify the outcome that would grant Puerto Rico statehood.

Many supporters of statehood believe the island’s territorial status is partly to blame for a decades-long fiscal crisis. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Nearly half of the island’s 3.4 million people live in poverty, and unemployment is 12.4 percent, compared with 4.3 percent on the U.S. mainland. Last month’s declaration of bankruptcy — the first time in history a U.S. state or territory has taken the measure — has wrought strict austerity measures that have shuttered public schools and factories and frozen salaries.

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Pedro Peurluisi, the island’s former congressional representative, is among those backing statehood. “Let’s send a loud and clear message to the United States and the entire world,” he said in a statement. “And that message is that we Puerto Ricans not only want our U.S. citizenship, but we want equal treatment.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who campaigned on the promise of statehood, has positioned statehood as part of a process of economic rehabilitation that would bring the island investment in infrastructure and business.

Many of those who oppose statehood see the referendum as a distraction from the territory’s intractable economic problems and are also skeptical it would bring benefits. While Puerto Ricans are American citizens and contribute to Social Security and Medicare, they do not vote for the U.S. president, and their single representative in Congress has no vote. If Puerto Rico became a state, the island would be required to pay federal taxes.

Héctor Ferrer, president of the Popular Democratic Party that embraces the island’s current status as a territory, also fears that statehood would bring a loss of Puerto Rican identity. “We will lose our autonomy,” he told The New York Times. “We will lose our culture. We will lose our language.”

Many Puerto Ricans doubt Congress can be convinced to incorporate the island, especially in the island’s current economic condition, The New York Times reported. In 2012, the last time statehood was put up to a vote and won, Congress did not take action to make it the 51st state.