Puerto Rican voters back statehood in questioned referendum

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"But we're going too to say no, that's not true and the numbers speak for themselves".

Puerto Rico's governor says the U.S. territory has overwhelmingly chosen statehood in a non-binding referendum.

About 97 percent of the votes were for statehood, representing a significant increase over the 61 percent that voted for statehood in 2012.

The vote is not the first of its kind, and does not mean that Puerto Rico will automatically become the 51st state of the United States. He also said that even among voters who supported statehood, turnout was lower this year compared with the last referendum in 2012.

Few expect current U.S. lawmakers to be very enthusiastic about eventual statehood for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has more than $120 billion in debt, a crushing load that has given rise to a new wave of activism.

Some see statehood as the best way to pull Puerto Rico out of its economic crisis, others blame the USA for the malaise and would rather seek independence after five centuries of what they call colonial rule.

Almost half a million Puerto Ricans have moved to the USA mainland in the past decade to find a more affordable cost of living or jobs as the island of 3.4 million people struggles with a 12 percent unemployment rate.

"That could be used as an excuse by many for not allowing a debtor state into the Union at this time", he said. He dismissed the boycott of the vote announced by the opposition parties as a sham. The Puerto Rican Independence Party had called the vote a "farce".

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But those who did vote were looking into the future.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Puerto Ricans are getting the chance Sunday to tell the U.S. Congress which political status they want for the U.S. territory that is mired in an economic crisis that has triggered an exodus of islanders to the mainland. In 1992 nearly 2 million Puerto Ricans voted. Congress ultimately has to approve the outcome of Sunday's referendum that offers voters three choices: statehood, free association/independence or current territorial status.

The Rossello government has been criticized for spending $7.5 million on the referendum at a time when financial difficulties have forced it to close 163 public schools and cut back in other areas.

Governor Rossello, a strong supporter of statehood, had beat the drum for the cause in Washington, where he found little support.

"I think it's good that he declined it because it was entirely distracting from the issue at hand, which is Puerto Rico", Mayor Bill de Blasio, who planned to march all along, said last week. Congress laid out a process through a provision in a 2014 law that said that if Puerto Rico wanted the federal government to pay attention to another status referendum, it had to follow certain rules.

"We need a change in the way we're living", he said.

Many believe the island's territorial status has contributed to its economic crisis, largely caused by decades of heavy borrowing and the elimination of federal tax incentives.

Still, Rossello says that he's grateful for his island's connection with the US, and that he remains hopeful that connection will grow closer.

What's Puerto Rico's current status?

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