Puerto Rico has been controlled for 100 years by the United States, and the status of the island's residents is quite unusual. Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens from birth, they can't vote for president unless they move to the mainland.
The island's one representative in the U.S. Congress has no vote there, and is more of a lobbyist than a full-fledged member of the House. Overall, Puerto Ricans are neither fish nor fowl when it comes to their relationship with the mainland U.S.
Now, once again, Puerto Rico is trying to sort out that relationship and reach a specific conclusion. On Dec. 13, Puerto Ricans will vote in an advisory referendum, choosing among four options: statehood; independence; independence while developing a new, treaty-based relationship with the U.S. or, finally, continuing the current commonwealth status.
Gov. Pedro Rossello, who pushed the referendum bill through both houses of the Puerto Rican government, is a staunch proponent of statehood. He hopes the referendum will clear the air, finally, and let everyone know that Puerto Rico wants to be the 51st state in the U.S.
Previous advisory referendums in Puerto Rico have produced uncertain results, with about the same number of voters favoring the current commonwealth status as statehood. Supporters of independence, although vociferous, haven't managed in the past to drum up much support.
This time, there's a fourth option. It would establish Puerto Rico as an independent country, but with a so-far ill-defined association with the U.S.
Puerto Rico would be in "free association" with the U.S. under terms of a treaty that would be negotiated. Evidently the treaty would give a few responsibilities to the U.S., such as controlling the currency, while Puerto Rico would operate mostly as a normal independent nation.
No matter how the Puerto Ricans vote, it won't compel the U.S. to do anything. It's merely a straw vote.
Chances for a binding referendum, which requires approval from the U.S. Congress, have slipped. The U.S. House passed a referendum bill in March, but it has stalled in the Senate with little hope of timely passage.
Puerto Ricans obviously have earned the right to vote in a binding referendum on their future. U.S. soldiers from Puerto Rico have served and died, and that in itself ought to persuade the Senate to act.
If not, this straw vote will have to do, for now. Perhaps this time the outcome will send a clear, unequivocal signal to Washington.