SAN JUAN, June 11 (Reuters) - An official count of votes for Puerto Rico’s plebiscite on Sunday showed overwhelming support for U.S. statehood, although adding another star to the U.S. flag would likely face an uphill battle in Congress.
A government website for the status referendum, Puerto Rico’s fifth since 1967, showed 97 percent of roughly 485,000 votes counted so far in favor of becoming the 51st U.S. state.
Votes were still being counted and the expected outcome is unlikely to change Puerto Rico’s label as a U.S. territory, a move that would require an act of the U.S. Congress.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello campaigned for the island’s 2.2 million eligible voters to select statehood as the best avenue to boost future growth for the struggling island.
The island has $70 billion in debt, a 45-percent poverty rate, woefully underperforming schools, and near-insolvent pension and health systems.
Puerto Rico’s hazy political status, dating back to its 1898 acquisition by the United States from Spain, has contributed to the economic crisis that pushed it last month into the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
“I voted for statehood,” Armando Abreu, a 74-year-old retiree, said after voting at the Escuela Gabriela Mistral. “Even if it’s still a long way off in the distance, it’s our only hope.”
Those in favor of statehood hope the new status would put the island on equal standing with the 50 U.S. states, giving them more access to federal funds and the right to vote for the U.S. President.
The island’s two main opposition parties boycotted the vote, which gave Puerto Ricans three options: becoming a U.S. state; remaining a territory; or becoming an independent nation, with or without some continuing political association with the United States.
The boycott raised concerns of low voter turnout.
Puerto Rico’s former governor Rafael Hernandez Colon said in a statement: “A contrived plebiscite fabricated an artificial majority for statehood by disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth supporters.”
Rather than heading to the polls, some 500 Puerto Ricans marched on the streets of San Juan, waving Puerto Rico’s flag and chanting in support of independence.
“This is a bogus plebiscite. Our future is independence. We need to be able to decide our own fate,” said Liliana Laboy, one of the organizers of the protest.
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; editing by Dave Gregorio and Grant McCool)