Puerto Rico's future as state remains fuzzy

The wording may have been jumbled, but the message was clear: Puerto Rico remains an island divided.

In a plebiscite marred by controversy over how the options were stated, a slim majority of voters favored the option backed by advocates of the status quo when they went to the polls Sunday.

The result is that Puerto Rico has probably pushed back the time when - if ever - it will become the 51st star on the American flag. Many members of Congress - who have the ultimate say in whether the island becomes a state - have been reluctant to consider admitting Puerto Rico to the Union until a strong majority of residents vote for it.

But this weekend's vote is the second time in five years that Puerto Rico has rejected the move to statehood. And the fact that the pro-commonwealth choice actually gained ground this time - up slightly to 50.2 percent - will lead to a bitter argument here over what the real message from the people is.

"To me, the message is clear: The island is still split down the middle," says Juan Garcia Passalacqua, a political analyst in Puerto Rico. "There hasn't been a major change from 1993. The island has been divided for years, and will likely remain so."

Most saw the vote here as an endorsement of Puerto Ricans' strong sense of identity, and their desire to keep their existing relationship with the United States. Currently, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, though they cannot vote for president or elect a voting member of Congress.

Despite the fact that a majority of voters supported the pro-commonwealth position, Gov. Pedro Rossello - who favors statehood - declared victory. After all, statehood won significantly more than any of the other specified options on the ballot, he argued.

But others said that interpretation of the results is ridiculous.

In protest of the wording of the referendum, the majority voted for "none of the above" - the choice backed by pro-commonwealth parties.

One voter here in San Juan put it this way. "I believe in the system we have now," said Teresita Fernandez, a medical aide, after dropping a "none of the above" slip in one of the thousands of cardboard ballot boxes used across the island. "I lived in Brooklyn for 13 years and I know it isn't going to get any better being a state. Now, we have the best of both worlds."

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