SAN JUAN — The Puerto Rican Senate's approval of a bill last week to hold a referendum to give voters a stark choice between statehood or independence looks like it may settle the island's status once and for all. Leading Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Día reports that the vote, set for June 11, will be the first in the island's history to offer citizens a binary choice between becoming the 51st U.S. state or declaring independence, excluding the option of retaining its current status as an American territory. The vote will be the fifth time Puerto Ricans have been called to the polls to decide their status since the island came under U.S. control in 1898.

In every previous referendum the most popular option was remaining a commonwealth except for the last vote in 2012 when voters opted for statehood — although more than half a million blank ballots were cast, prompting Washington to ignore the result. The Senate's decision last Thursday to move forward with the vote this year has generated intense controversy, with the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PPD) announcing it would appeal to the federal Department of Justice to prevent it from occurring.

The New Progressive Party (NPP), which proposed the legislation and holds a majority in the Puerto Rican Congress, is traditionally in favor of statehood and organized the vote in a bid to put an end to the long-running debate on the island's status.

San Juan, Puerto Rico — Photo: Ricardo's Photography

The NPP's Ricardo Rosselló won the governorship last November after campaigning on a pledge to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, claiming it would help solve the grinding economic crisis plaguing the territory, which most recently has left the island with a $70 billion debt.

Opposition parties criticized the decision to exclude other options such as "free association," a form of sovereignty where Puerto Rico would become independent but would cede control over certain areas, like defense, to the United States. According to El Nuevo Día, the approved law stipulates that in the case of a vote for independence, a second referendum would be held Oct. 8 presenting a choice between free association and full independence.

One thing appears certain: By the end of this year, Puerto Rico's political limbo will end, and it will either become the 51st American state, or it will become the 194th member of the United Nations.

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